On Monday, White House press secretary Jen Psaki insisted the administration genuinely wants to get to the bottom of the origin question. She repeated that the Biden team doesn’t believe there’s enough evidence to draw a conclusion about either of the two competing theories (a natural origin or an accident in one of the Wuhan labs studying bat coronaviruses). But she repeatedly refused to say what, if anything, the Biden administration is willing to do to figure it out.
“We are, and we have repeatedly called for the WHO to support an expert-driven evaluation of the pandemic’s origins that is free from interference or politicization,” said Psaki, noting the administration’s criticism of the WHO’s “phase one” study mission, which issued a report in March so flawed that even WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus criticized it. “And now we’re hopeful that WHO can move into a more transparent, independent phase two investigation.”
Psaki declined to answer why the Biden administration has any faith in the WHO or what would have to happen for the U.S. government to initiate its own investigation. Psaki also threw cold water on Sunday’s Wall Street Journal report that asserted a U.S. intelligence report says three Wuhan Institute of Virology researchers were hospitalized in November 2019 with covid-like symptoms. Psaki said the evidence referenced in the Journal article was not “from the United States.”
This same evidence reportedly provided some of the basis for a Jan. 15 statement issued by the Trump administration State Department, which also alleged the Wuhan labs were doing undisclosed coronavirus research in conjunction with the Chinese military. The Biden administration confirmed the facts of the Trump administration’s statement, but has yet to release the source information.
Journal correspondent Michael R. Gordon later confirmed on CNN that Psaki was saying that the intelligence on the sick researchers came from a partner country. Most of the facts in the Journal article were reported in March in the newspaper the Australian, suggesting that Australian intelligence agencies might have been the original source. Either way, Psaki made it clear that the Biden administration is content to let the WHO sort it out.
“What we do share — everyone in this country — is a desire to know how this started, where it started, and prevent it from ever happening again,” she said. “That’s something we all share.”
Of course everyone shares the “desire” to solve the covid origin question; that’s not the issue. The question is whether the Biden administration is actually going to do what it can to investigate. So far it seems the Biden team is all talk, no action. In an address to a WHO meeting Tuesday, Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra called for China to allow a full, independent investigation into the origins of the pandemic, but didn’t specify what happens if Beijing refuses. Andy Slavitt, the White House senior adviser on the coronavirus response, told reporters in Washington on Tuesday this is “a critical priority” for the Biden administration but said, “We need the WHO to assist in that matter.”
If the administration doesn’t want to press China directly or start its own international investigation, the least it can do is cooperate with congressional requests for relevant information that’s in the possession of the U.S. government.
But several U.S. government agencies are ignoring or resisting congressional attempts to seek answers. Last week, the National Institutes of Health finally responded to a letter sent in March by Republican leaders of the House Energy and Commerce Committee that requested all of NIH’s records on all its work with the Wuhan labs, including projects involving the contractor EcoHealth Alliance. The two-page response from NIH didn’t answer any of the questions posed by lawmakers.
“Neither NIH nor the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases has ever approved any grant that would have supported [gain of function] research on coronaviruses that would have increased their transmissibility or lethality for humans,” the NIH wrote, explaining that some limited NIH funding had gone to the WIV to study bat coronaviruses through EcoHealth Alliance in the past, but not currently.
This is the same response Anthony S. Fauci, the head of NIAID, gave to Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) in a heated exchange earlier this month. Paul pointed out that many scientists believe the WIV’s work on bat coronaviruses did constitute gain-of-function research, even if the NIH did not technically classify it as such. But this semantical debate distracts from the real issue, which is that we need to understand exactly what was going on in these Wuhan labs.
The GOP House lawmakers also wrote in March to EcoHealth Alliance, and this month to Secretary of State Antony Blinken, to ask for their records related to work with the WIV. Neither has responded.
The NIH funding is just one part of the puzzle. EcoHealth Alliance received grants from several U.S. government agencies, including the Defense Department, USAID, the Department of Homeland Security and many more. All of those records could be relevant to the investigation. “This is a matter of public health, it’s a matter of biosecurity, and we’re not going to leave any stone unturned until we get some answers,” Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.) said Tuesday on Fox News.
The Journal story has kicked off a flurry of introspection in Washington about how the lab-leak hypothesis was considered by many to be a conspiracy theory for so long but now seems perfectly plausible. Even Fauci, after a year of throwing cold water on the idea, now says he’s “not convinced” the virus emerged naturally and that he supports an investigation into the lab-leak theory.
But as Richard Ebright, a biosafety expert and microbiologist at Rutgers University, recently tweeted, “Many threads of investigation are available in US and would be accessible to a Congressional inquiry with subpoena power.” But only congressional Democrats hold that power — and they show no intention of using it. Of course, the Biden administration could release the intelligence in its possession and direct its agencies to answer legitimate congressional inquiries right now — but it hasn’t.
If you are now willing to admit the lab-leak theory is worthy of investigation, no matter what you thought before or how you got here, you ought to also recognize that an investigation into this theory must begin immediately and can’t be palmed off onto the WHO. There is no problem more urgently in need of thorough and critical scrutiny. The longer the Biden administration ducks the issue, the harder it will be to solve.