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The coronavirus might not be the worst of it
The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Inconclusive review of virus origins prompts calls for more probes: ‘We have to get to the bottom of this’

The novel coronavirus, captured by an electron microscope. (National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases/AP)

An array of activists, scientists and politicians said Wednesday that the Biden administration’s inconclusive report on the origins of the coronavirus pandemic demonstrates the need for further probes, even if that leads the United States into delicate geopolitical territory.

“It is good they did that review, but I don’t think we should all move on just because it was inconclusive,” said Anita Cicero, deputy director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. “I’m actually disturbed that much of the scientific and public health community seems complacent to make their best guesses and move on without getting to the root cause of the pandemic.”

The administration’s classified review, with portions set to be publicly released as soon as this week, doesn’t rule out that the virus emerged in the wild or that it leaked from a laboratory, officials said. Its pending release has sparked an outcry in China, where officials have bristled at inquires into the possibility of a laboratory leak and state media this week preemptively blasted the U.S. findings.

The findings also caused a stir in the United States, with close observers concluding that the White House report supports their existing positions on covid-19 — even when their positions directly conflict.

“I’m not surprised that the intelligence community would come up with the similar conclusion that the scientific community has, which is you can’t rule out either a natural hypothesis … or this lab leak hypothesis,” said Michael Worobey, head of the University of Arizona’s Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, who said far more evidence favors that the virus jumped from animals to humans.

“There is no mystery: Overwhelming evidence indicates the COVID-19 virus originated in the Wuhan lab in China,” House Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) countered in a statement. “The failure of the Biden administration to reach a definitive conclusion on the origins of COVID-19 shows this was not a serious, objective effort.”

The report, commissioned as a 90-day review, was prompted after President Biden received a May report from the nation’s intelligence agencies saying they had “coalesced around two likely scenarios” but had not reached a conclusion. The president disclosed that two agencies leaned toward the hypothesis that the virus emerged from human contact with an infected animal, while a third leaned toward the lab scenario.

Debate over the pandemic’s origins sparked partisan brawls last year, fueled by President Donald Trump’s public claims that the virus leaked from a lab in Wuhan, China, and Democrats’ insistence that the Trump administration was seeking to evade responsibility for mismanaging the response. But most Americans, including 59 percent of Republicans and 52 percent of Democrats, say they believe the virus emerged from a lab rather than from human contact with an infected animal, according to a Politico-Harvard poll released last month.

Several scientists said the question of the virus’s origin is important to understand, stressing that the lessons would be vital for preventing future pandemics. But they lamented that the search for an origin has become highly politicized. Many said they were not surprised the report was inconclusive and remained skeptical there would ever be a definitive answer.

“This investigation was never going to be able to nail it down, and it’s not remotely surprising that it’s inconclusive. Unfortunately, that means the partisans will be further entrenched in their views,” said William Hanage, associate professor of epidemiology at the Center for Communicable Disease Dynamics at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

Cicero, the Johns Hopkins expert, noted that national commissions were established to probe tragedies such as the 1986 Challenger explosion and Deepwater Horizon oil spill — but no similar effort has been established to investigate the origins of the coronavirus, despite its far larger death toll.

“What’s at stake here is trying to figure out for the future how do we reduce the risk of future pandemics, both naturally occurring or otherwise or accidentally released,” she said. “At the very least, there should be a concerted international effort, a feverish hunt for the natural animal host if that’s what most people presume, and I just don’t see that.”

Jamie Metzl, a member of a World Health Organization expert committee and a former aide to Biden when he was a senator, said he was heartened by early reports that the administration reviewed an array of possibilities, sparked by new information provided by the intelligence community.

“I’m actually a bit encouraged that there will be additional little nuggets of information that will advance our process of digging until we get to the right answer,” said Metzl, who has been leading calls for a probe. “I never felt this review was going to be determinative. It is only a beginning.”

Some former Trump administration officials said they didn’t expect the 90-day review to turn up definitive answers, citing ongoing tensions with China.

“I am not surprised that the [intelligence community] landed in the same place they started,” said Anthony Ruggiero, a former National Security Council director under Trump and senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. “China is stonewalling a real investigation, and Biden does not have a plan to compel Beijing’s cooperation. Now that the 90-day review is complete, Biden must detail his strategy to address Beijing’s coverup that cost the lives of more than 630,000 Americans.”

“It’s exactly what we knew it would be,” said a former Department of Health and Human Services official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to address the Trump administration’s probe into the pandemic’s origin. “Even if they have the smoking gun, what’s the outcome of revealing it?”

The Biden administration is also navigating complicated domestic politics, with activists having warned that any finding that faults China for the virus’s origin could foster threats to Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, a constituency that broke heavily for Biden in last year’s election.

The Asian American Foundation “is deeply concerned that the debate over the origins of the pandemic — and some of the rhetoric driving the debate — could further fan the flames of anti-AAPI hate,” the group said in a statement this week.

On Capitol Hill, several lawmakers cited the report in calling for congressional investigations into the origin question.

“We’re just scratching the surface. And we have to get to the bottom of this,” said Sen. Roger Marshall (R-Kan.), who this month convened a bipartisan briefing on the virus’s origins with Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.).

Marshall contrasted the level of interest in investigating the origins of the coronavirus with the many probes into the January attack on the Capitol, with Democrats investigating Trump’s role in sparking the insurrection.

“My goodness, we’ve got what — 15 investigations on Jan. 6? But no hardcore active investigations in Congress on the origins of covid?” Marshall said. “Obviously, the White House has a lot on its plate right now … but this seems to be very low priority to them.”

Many observers said they worried that the Biden administration’s inconclusive findings would be misrepresented.

“When the conclusion of a report is that it’s inconclusive, the danger is that partisan politicians will use that as proof that it was a lab leak or that it came from research from NIH,” said Leslie Dach, a former Obama administration official who chairs Protect Our Care, a health advocacy committee, referring to the U.S. National Institutes of Health. “And the report will not say that, and there is zero proof of that.”

“Unfortunately, there’s a big industry in conspiracy theories when it comes to Donald Trump, when it comes to covid,” Dach added. “My fear is, that engine is going to rev up … and these conspiracy theories are a threat to our safety.”

Worobey, who said his lab continues to try to examine the viral genomes published out of China in hopes of more definitive answers, said he leans toward the zoonotic hypothesis, citing evidence that illegal wildlife was being sold at a wet market in Wuhan and that people with “long-term associations” with that market were among the first cases in a city of 11 million people.

“Because you can’t rule out one [theory] or the other definitively … that’s not the same as saying they’re both equally likely,” he said.