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Biden Must Expose China's COVID-19 Cover-Up | Opinion

Newsweek logo Newsweek 3/4/2021 Anthony Ruggiero
a group of people that are standing in the street: A team from the World Health Organization arrived in Wuhan on Thursday to investigate the origin of the new coronavirus but experts warned we may never know the origin. People wearing face masks walk outside a shopping mall complex during rush hour in Wuhan on Wednesday, a day before a team of WHO experts will land directly in Wuhan, according to China's foreign ministry, to start their long-delayed probe into the COVID-19 coronavirus at the virus epicenter. © Nicolas Asfouri/AFP/Getty A team from the World Health Organization arrived in Wuhan on Thursday to investigate the origin of the new coronavirus but experts warned we may never know the origin. People wearing face masks walk outside a shopping mall complex during rush hour in Wuhan on Wednesday, a day before a team of WHO experts will land directly in Wuhan, according to China's foreign ministry, to start their long-delayed probe into the COVID-19 coronavirus at the virus epicenter.

Chinese authorities are still refusing to share critical evidence about the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic. The World Health Organization (WHO) still refuses to challenge Beijing and is even promoting Chinese cover stories that allege the pandemic did not begin in Wuhan. The Biden administration has begun to notice, but still needs a game plan for holding both Beijing and the WHO accountable.

Pinpointing the origins of the coronavirus pandemic is a scientific imperative. America's ability to detect, prevent, and prepare for future pandemics depends on knowing precisely how this one started. The answers to this question clearly have political implications, but public health must come first.

We are still learning more about Beijing's refusal to provide WHO investigators with raw data for over 70,000 early cases of patients with COVID-like symptoms. Apparently, the data that China did provide shows patients from the Wuhan area had exposure to the virus outside the seafood market where the pandemic allegedly began, raising questions about the origin story.

Despite lacking this crucial data, the WHO delegation dismissed as "extremely unlikely" the possibility that COVID-19 escaped from the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV). Instead, the investigators directed attention to the very weak hypothesis—favored by Beijing—that the virus arrived in Wuhan in a shipment of frozen food which may even have come from outside China.

This did not sit well with the White House. U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan on February 13 issued a strong statement demanding that China release the early data and warning that the WHO's credibility was in danger. "It is imperative that this report be independent," Sullivan said, "with expert findings free from intervention or alteration by the Chinese government."

The Biden administration focused early on the global dimensions of the pandemic. Within hours of Biden's inauguration, the White House released a 200-page National Strategy for the COVID-19 Response and Pandemic Preparedness, along with an Executive Order assigning initial tasks to key officials. Biden's first National Security Memorandum (NSM), issued January 21, dealt with COVID-19, global health security, and biological preparedness.

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None of these key documents calls for determining the precise origin of the pandemic. In fact, the word "China" does not appear in any of them. NSM-1 does direct top officials, like Sullivan and Secretary of State Antony Blinken, to "strengthen and reform the WHO," yet there are no specifics, even in the 200-page strategy.

To begin, the Biden administration should insist the WHO immediately remove Beijing from what is now a joint investigation into the pandemic's origins. The administration should also lead a public-private review of the WHO report to ensure its objectivity.

Two days after his investigators appeared to dismiss the possibility that the virus escaped from the WIV, WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom attempted to clean up the mess by saying all hypotheses will be investigated. But four days later a WHO investigator stated at an official press conference—in Tedros' presence—that the lab hypothesis is not a "high priority."

The lab escape hypothesis is controversial because of its political implications, but rests on well-documented concerns, not conspiracy theories or paranoia. Shi Zhengli, a top scientist who studies coronaviruses at WIV and is known to her colleagues as China's "bat woman," was taken by surprise when the pandemic broke out in Wuhan. Her extensive research showed that coronaviruses were most likely to jump from animals (especially bats) to humans in China's subtropical southern provinces, not centrally-located Wuhan. In March 2020, Shi told Scientific American that her first question about the first infections was "Could they have come from our lab?" That does not sound like an "extremely unlikely" scenario, as the WHO suggested.

One WHO investigator even stated—while in quarantine in China before the investigation began—that "the evidence right now suggests a high probability that the region of Southeast Asia is where this started." In other words, he was suggesting the pandemic originated outside of a China, a notion Beijing has aggressively promoted despite a lack of evidence.

NSM-1 mandates a report within 30 days on how the U.S. can strengthen and reform the WHO. The first requirement is new leadership. Tedros is clearly not up to the task of freeing the WHO from China's grip, although his five-year term will end in 2022. The Biden administration should work with fellow G7 members to put forward a joint candidate for next year's election, one who is capable of defending WHO's integrity.

The United States' ability to prevent the next pandemic is riding on the outcome of the investigation into COVID-19's origins. The pandemic's impact on the American economy and society shows the consequences of getting it wrong.

The Biden administration has trumpeted its reversal of Donald Trump's decision to withdraw the U.S. from the WHO. Now the administration needs to show that it is rejoining on America's terms and defending America's interests, not engaging for the sake of engagement itself.

Anthony Ruggiero is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He previously served in the U.S. government for more than 19 years, most recently as the National Security Council's senior director for counterproliferation and biodefense. Follow Anthony on Twitter: @NatSecAnthony. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.

The views in this article are the writer's own.

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