President Biden took an important but limited step Wednesday toward a genuine investigation into the origins of covid-19. He issued an order directing his intelligence agencies to “redouble their efforts” to look into the two competing hypotheses about the source of the pandemic (a random viral spillover in nature or an accident at one of the Chinese labs studying bat coronaviruses in Wuhan). But this represents just one aspect of a growing U.S. government and congressional effort to finally try — as best we can — to get to the bottom of how the pandemic started.
Multiple senior administration officials told me that Biden’s statement, which came the day after China publicly refused to cooperate with further World Health Organization investigations, was meant to signal a new, broader phase of the U.S. inquiry. After receiving an initial U.S. intelligence community assessment two weeks ago as part of his President’s Daily Brief, these officials said, Biden decided to declassify some of it and send the intel community back to do more digging. But now he’s also including a range of other federal institutions.
Over the next 90 days, this investigation could and should examine any and all information on the Wuhan Institute of Virology held by the U.S. National Institutes of Health, including the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, the U.S. Agency for International Development, the Defense Department, the Department of Homeland Security and the National Science Foundation. The list also includes the nonprofit organization EcoHealth Alliance, which channeled U.S. funding to the Wuhan lab.
This expanded scope will, it’s hoped, enable the intelligence community to do better than simply claim there’s not enough evidence to make a high-confidence assessment in either direction. But that’s not going to be the end of the process, not by a long shot.
“We are not saying that in 90 days we will have an answer or the answer, we’re saying in 90 days we are going to have an update, and then we will see where we go from there,” a senior administration official told me. “This is a commitment to redouble our efforts and be as transparent as we can.”
Biden’s officials acknowledge he acted in part due to rising public and congressional pressure to explore the lab accident theory, an effort supported by an ever-growing pile of circumstantial evidence and an ever-growing list of top scientists. But they insist Biden himself always believed the lab accident theory was plausible and needed investigation. Even so, there’s concern on Capitol Hill that the White House may use the new investigation to thwart several ongoing inquiries by lawmakers. And Republicans still doubt that Biden is willing to exert significant pressure on Beijing.
On Tuesday, the Senate unanimously passed an amendment that would ban all U.S. government funding to the Wuhan Institute of Virology, where — according to both the Trump and Biden administrations — Chinese scientists were conducting secret coronavirus research with the Chinese military and where researchers got sick with covid-like symptoms. In the House, Democratic leaders are now openly calling for a public investigation into the lab leak theory.
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) told me he is preparing sanctions legislation to push for a transparent forensic investigation into the Wuhan lab and “impose costs if Beijing doesn’t allow one.” Lawmakers also want to probe the failures of the U.S. intelligence agencies, including why they were caught flat-footed when the pandemic hit: Why did they have no idea what was going on inside this network of Chinese labs conducting risky research? And that obviously can’t be part of the intelligence community’s own investigation.
Some say there’s little likelihood that the intelligence community or Congress will be able to find a conclusive answer on the lab leak theory in 90 days — if ever. Biden alluded to this possibility in his statement, saying Beijing’s actions to cover up and conceal events in Wuhan early on “will always hamper any investigation into the origin of covid-19.”
Even if ironclad proof can’t be found, that doesn’t absolve us of the responsibility to keep looking. Along the way we need to completely rethink how we manage oversight of these Chinese labs and all the U.S. labs that work with them. The answers may be complicated. But if it should turn out that most of the evidence points to the Wuhan labs, are lab leak skeptics really going to propose we do nothing and just wait for the next pandemic?
Put simply, it has become amply clear that these Chinese labs, which have a record of safety lapses, operate with little transparency and zero accountability, which means they present an ongoing risk that must be mitigated. The intelligence community’s job is to collect intelligence. It’s the policymakers and the legislators who will have to use that intelligence to formulate a response in the form of policies and laws.
Some say pursuing the lab leak investigation risks upsetting complex and fragile U.S.-China relations. Well, if uncovering the truth about 591,000 American deaths doesn’t warrant risking offending the delicate sensibilities of the Chinese Communist Party, what would? There’s no statute of limitations on 3 million deaths worldwide. This is not going away. This is not about “blaming China.” This is about protecting our public health.