The first effort by the WHO proved highly unsatisfactory in part because of China’s manhandling of the probe. The pandemic that first broke out in Wuhan may have been triggered by zoonotic spillover, animals to humans or by an inadvertent leak at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, which was carrying out research experiments on bat coronaviruses. These and other hypotheses cry out for an investigation endowed with resources and expertise. It is time to move beyond easy scapegoating and drill down for the truth.
Mr. Biden has ordered an intelligence review, due this summer, but that’s hardly enough, and he should actively support the creation of an independent commission that would examine virus origins and the nation’s response to the crisis. Congress ought to join in. Many national and global calamities were later subject to bipartisan investigation: Pearl Harbor, the Vietnam War, the John F. Kennedy and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. assassinations, 9/11. A great start already exists with the Covid Commission Planning Group led by Philip Zelikow, but it needs a sense that the White House, Congress and other national leaders will welcome the probe and assist with a full-blown independent investigation.
China’s resistance is a lingering obstacle. Milton Leitenberg, senior research associate at the Center for International and Security Studies at the University of Maryland, examining China’s responses to the SARS outbreak in 2002-2003 and this one in the journal CBRNe World, concludes that, as on the first occasion, “the government initiated a massive campaign of denial, cover-up, diversions, delay and disinformation.” A group of 31 scientists and experts on June 28 published the fourth open letter calling for a probe and offering a detailed road map for carrying it out, with or without China’s cooperation.
The WHO is working on a Phase 2 investigation plan with its global partners. The WHO is a member organization and lacks muscle but has expertise and relationships. China’s intransigence is not going to disappear. But the WHO should try again. It might usefully draw from the world’s best and brightest specialists, and seek to engage China at the level of science first, perhaps wrapped in a longer-term project to create a structure and incentives for global disease tracking and cooperation.
If China continues to resist, then independent investigations should proceed without it. The more time that passes, the harder it will be to find the truth. No opportunity should be missed to draw lessons from a global catastrophe that has taken nearly 4 million lives.