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The Biden Admin Discounts Lab-Leak Theory amid New WHO Push

Outside the Wuhan Institute of Virology, February 2021 (Thomas Peter/Reuters)

The Wall Street Journal has a report on the U.S. government’s efforts to shape the next phase of the investigation into COVID-19’s origins. Following a joint World Health Organization–China panel’s report issued in March, officials are hoping to steer the international inquiry in a more productive direction, apparently to “build on” the study and reveal “gaps within the team’s analysis.”

Why the Biden administration wants to build on such a clearly flawed investigation is anyone’s guess. China has previously refused to provide the data that the Biden administration will request WHO to demand from Beijing.

Worse, the framing of the administration’s efforts to shape the WHO investigation reportedly ignores the implication of a key State Department fact sheet issued by the Trump administration on January 15 about the Wuhan Institute of Virology, which alleged that researchers there came down with a respiratory illness in fall 2019, before the first known COVID cases were confirmed in December, that WIV hosted research on bat coronaviruses similar to COVID-19 years before the outbreak, and that WIV has “engaged in classified research, including laboratory animal experiments, on behalf of the Chinese military since at least 2017.”

The investigation’s deficiencies were apparent to everyone from the start, including Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who expressed “real concerns” about Beijing’s role in drafting the resulting study. Upon that report’s release, the U.S. and 13 other countries released a joint statement voicing concerns that it was “significantly delayed and lacked access to complete, original data and samples.”

Unsurprisingly, the panel endorsed findings in line with the Chinese Communist Party’s narrative on COVID. The study considered four scenarios that could have led to the virus’s emergence, ranking them from most likely to least. Two different such theories about COVID’s transmission from wild animals to humans filled out the top of the list, followed by the possibility that it arrived in China on imported frozen-food packaging. Finally, the joint study called the lab-leak hypothesis “extremely unlikely,” all but dismissing that theory.

Critics warned that the WHO-China panel elevated the frozen-food theory, which has been pushed by the Chinese foreign ministry, without any evidence for it. By asking the WHO to request that Beijing substantiate its theory, the Biden administration hopes to expose it as fiction.

It makes, however, some questionable assumptions about the lab-accident hypothesis. The WSJ also says that Washington will ask the agency to seek data on illnesses that occurred at the Wuhan Institute of Virology in fall 2019 and frozen blood samples. The officials who spoke to the Journal were clear, though, that they would not demand a closer look at the lab-accident theory, despite WHO director general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus’s calls for “further investigation” of a possible lab release, in a statement dissenting from the WHO report. Even though U.S. government experts believe that lab leak could have been the start of the pandemic, the Biden administration reportedly “doesn’t currently intend to press” for more investigation into the possibility because it would take a whistleblower’s cooperation to prove the existence of a lab accident at this point.

But the Biden administration and the WHO don’t need to apply such a high burden of proof to make crucial policy determinations on the basis that supporting coronavirus research in China poses a significant risk.

Senior administration officials have apprehensively confirmed the fact sheet’s findings on a few occasions, but they’ve done so while warning that the Trump administration “put spin on the ball” when the document was issued. But former deputy national security adviser Matt Pottinger told CBS in February that officials were careful not to say that the document’s revelations about WIV pointed to any single explanation. The fact sheet is clear: “We have not determined whether the outbreak began through contact with infected animals or was the result of an accident at a laboratory in Wuhan, China.”

That language is as careful as recent statements by Biden’s own spy chiefs refusing to rule out the lab-leak explanation: CIA director William Burns and Avril Haines, the director of national intelligence, told a Senate committee this month that these two possibilities are still in play. They also said that the intelligence community disagrees with the WHO-China study’s assessment that the explanation is extremely unlikely.

Both theories rely on circumstantial evidence, and a lab leak might even be more compelling. Jamie Metzl, an adviser to the WHO, put the point succinctly during a 60 Minutes segment in March. In order for the virus to have leapt to humans directly from an animal population, he said, “You would have had an outbreak, perhaps in Southern China where they have those animal farms. You may have seen some kind of evidence of an outbreak along the way.” The explanation doesn’t make geographical sense, and, like the lab-leak theory, there’s nothing that proves it outright.

The ample circumstantial evidence raised by the State Department’s fact sheet should be enough for the Biden administration to call greater attention to a potential lab leak and to demand transparency about the Chinese military’s research at WIV. But this new push for transparency gives that plausible explanation short shrift.

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