In its final days, President Donald Trump’s State Department made a series of highly controversial claims about the Wuhan Institute of Virology in Wuhan, China, and its possible connection to the covid-19 outbreak. Now, the Biden administration has reviewed those claims, and is confirming some of the facts within them — but not, a senior State Department official has told me, the Trump team’s theory of how the pandemic broke out. These facts suggest that more investigation is needed into the lab’s possible connection to the outbreak.
The controversy surrounds a Jan. 15 statement put out by then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo that was accompanied by a “Fact Sheet” entitled: “Activity at the Wuhan Institute of Virology.” That fact sheet alleged that the U.S. government had evidence that “several researchers inside the WIV became sick in autumn 2019 . . . with symptoms consistent with both COVID-19 and common seasonal illnesses.” The fact sheet further alleged that the WIV has not publicly disclosed all of its work on SARS-like coronaviruses and “has collaborated on publications and secret projects with China’s military,” despite claiming to be a civilian institution.
National security adviser Jake Sullivan repeatedly declined to comment on the veracity of the Pompeo fact sheet when questioned about it on “Face the Nation” on Feb. 21. Sullivan said the Biden administration was not in a position to say how the virus originated, and he called on the Chinese government to be more transparent with the World Health Organization and the world.
Appearing on the same show, former deputy national security adviser Matthew Pottinger said the Jan. 15 statement was meant to declassify some of what the Trump administration believed was a significant body of circumstantial evidence that human error in China contributed to the outbreak, specifically relating to the WIV lab.
“That was a very carefully crafted statement, carefully crafted so as not to overstate the case that it was making,” Pottinger said. “The case it was making was for following up on these important leads.”
In a talk he gave last month at Florida International University, Pottinger said the Jan. 15 fact sheet was vetted and cleared for release by the State Department, the White House, the Department of Health and Human Services and U.S. intelligence community leadership.
After reviewing the Trump administration’s underlying evidence, none of which has been released publicly, the Biden State Department determined that some of the facts in the Jan. 15 statement are supported by either U.S. government information or public sources, a senior State Department official told me. But that doesn’t mean the Biden team is endorsing Trump’s or Pottinger’s assertion that the lab was probably involved.
“There wasn’t significant or meaningful disagreement regarding the information presented in the fact sheet,” the senior State Department official said. “No one is disputing the information, the fact that these data points exist, the fact that they are accurate. Where there was some discomfort was that [the Trump administration] put spin on the ball.”
The official said the data points in the Pompeo fact sheet were hand-picked by senior Trump administration State Department political officials, and the fact sheet was also signed off on by former Trump Pentagon official Anthony Tata, a retired general who faced criticism for anti-Islam comments and for calling President Barack Obama “a terrorist leader” on Twitter. Therefore, the official said, they do not represent a fair and balanced representation of what the U.S. government knew about the coronavirus origins at the time. By focusing only on the lab, the fact sheet highlighted only the data points that supported the conclusion Pompeo wanted, the official said.
“From the start, the fact sheet was a State Department messaging document, rather than some sort of complete accounting or intelligence-driven analytic product,” the official said. “There was certainly not consensus [inside the U.S. government] on the still unproven theory that this emerged from the lab.”
In early 2018, U.S. diplomats who visited the WIV lab wrote two cables back to Washington warning that the lab’s scientists had reported safety and staffing issues — and that the lab was doing risky research on bat coronaviruses and how they infect humans. The lab’s scientists and the Chinese government have consistently denied any link between the lab and the outbreak.
One of the issues with the fact sheet is that it doesn’t specify which information is gleaned from public sources and which data points are derived from U.S. intelligence collection. Multiple senior Trump administration officials told me that the information about sick researchers at the WIV and the lab’s secret work with the Chinese government and military comes from intelligence sources, not public sources.
The senior State Department official declined to comment on the specific data points but noted that even Pompeo’s fact sheet admits that the U.S. government does not know which theory of the virus’s origins is correct. The Biden administration is calling on the Chinese government to be more transparent and is asking the WHO to complete a full and independent investigation.
The origin of the pandemic is not just about blame. If the source of the outbreak can’t be determined, its true path can’t be traced and crucial scientific information for preventing the next outbreak can’t be learned. The Biden administration is trying to take a neutral stance on the issue, even though the fact-finding process has become entangled in domestic politics, as well as U.S.-China relations.
“We certainly care a great deal about the origin of this virus, not only for reasons of accountability, but also for public health implications going forward,” the official said. “If we are going to prevent future outbreaks, epidemics or, God forbid, pandemics, we need to know how the last one started. . . . Whichever theory the facts bear out, that’s where we’ll go.”
Coronavirus: What you need to know
Vaccines: The CDC recommends that everyone age 5 and older get an updated covid booster shot designed to target both the original virus and the omicron variant. Here’s some guidance on when you should get the omicron booster and how vaccine efficacy could be affected by your prior infections.
Variants: Instead of a single new Greek letter variant, a group of immune-evading omicron spinoffs are popping up all over the world. Any dominant variant will likely knock out monoclonal antibodies, targeted drugs that can be used as a treatment or to protect immunocompromised people.
Tripledemic: Hospitals are overwhelmed by a combination of respiratory illnesses, staffing shortages and nursing home closures. And experts believe the problem will deteriorate further in coming months. Here’s how to tell the difference between RSV, the flu and covid-19.
Guidance: CDC guidelines have been confusing — if you get covid, here’s how to tell when you’re no longer contagious. We’ve also created a guide to help you decide when to keep wearing face coverings.
Where do things stand? See the latest coronavirus numbers in the U.S. and across the world. In the U.S., pandemic trends have shifted and now White people are more likely to die from covid than Black people. Nearly nine out of 10 covid deaths are people over the age 65.
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