The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Bill Gates is wrong. China’s coronavirus coverup is not a ‘distraction.’

Microsoft founder Bill Gates.
Microsoft founder Bill Gates. (Ted S. Warren/AP)

Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates was surely speaking for a lot of people when he dismissed criticism of the Chinese government’s handling of the novel coronavirus pandemic as a “distraction” from the important work of fighting the virus here at home.

Yet the Chinese Communist Party is still working full time to cover up information about the outbreak and the Chinese government’s own failures. By so doing, it continues to threaten the health and lives of Americans. That can’t be ignored.

Gates argued Sunday on CNN that examining the Chinese government’s record of hiding information about the coronavirus outbreak, putting out false information, silencing critics and thwarting attempts to investigate its true origin is not useful at this time “because it doesn’t affect how we act today.” He said Beijing “did a lot of things right at the beginning” and has come under unfair criticism, “but it’s not even time for that discussion.”

Full coverage of the coronavirus pandemic

Various groups — from conservative media outlets to the Chinese Communist Party — immediately seized upon his remarks to further their own agendas. But let’s focus on the bottom line: Gates’s comments are simply wrong, and dangerously so. Beijing’s bad behavior is neither past nor benign. In fact, it continues to put us at increased risk.

Global Opinions writer Josh Rogin has obtained a 2018 U.S. diplomatic cable urging Washington to better support a Chinese lab researching bat coronaviruses. (Video: Josh Rogin/The Washington Post)

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called for depoliticizing the issue when asked about Gates’s comments Wednesday on Fox News.

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“It’s not a distraction,” he said. “We’ve had now thousands of Americans that have died as a result of this virus, and we know where that virus started. I hope this doesn’t become partisan. It’s too serious a matter.”

Pompeo is right on that. But he ought to tell his boss, President Trump, who is now openly accusing Beijing of working to thwart his reelection, as well as the Trump campaign, which is churning out ads accusing Joe Biden of being weak on China. The Biden campaign, it should be noted, is also politicizing the China issue.

The National Republican Senatorial Committee sent its members a 57-page memo encouraging them, “Don’t defend Trump, other than the China Travel Ban — attack China.” It’s no wonder that people like Gates think Trump is indulging in China-bashing for its own sake.

But we must put politics aside and look at the facts.

The Chinese government misled the world about the virus early on. It manipulated statistics to downplay the outbreak’s severity, silenced whistleblowers, spread misinformation and disinformation, and censored science that didn’t fit the official narrative.

These are not academic points. Beijing continues to do all these things today. Just in the past week, Beijing pressured the European Union to censor a report addressing China’s responsibility, threatened Australia with economic pressure if it conducted an inquiry of its own, and arrested three more journalists for the crime of posting covid-19 articles on GitHub (which is, incidentally, owned by Microsoft).

It’s not just about blame. The Chinese government’s refusal to allow international experts to investigate what happened in the city of Wuhan impedes efforts to find treatments and cures. Unless the source is located, the true path of the outbreak can’t be traced and critical scientific information can’t be known. Whether you believe it came from a market, a lab or a random bat flying around Wuhan, Beijing won’t allow any of these scenarios to be examined. We have to solve the origin question to beat the outbreak and prevent the next pandemic.

And that’s not the only problem. China still won’t share original virus samples, which many international researchers are asking for. The statistics issued by China are used in models that inform our response. China didn’t report asymptomatic positive cases in its tallies until this month. That information would have been extremely useful months ago.

Cooperating with China on the pandemic is crucial, say those who warn against pushing Beijing too far. Yet this is a straw-man argument. Cooperation works only to the extent Beijing is cooperating in good faith. Joining together to find treatments and cures sounds great, but when the U.S. drug firm Gilead sent a sample of the drug remdesivir to China for use in trials in January, a Chinese research institute copied it and tried to patent it for itself.

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China has a special responsibility not because it is to blame but because it is the first mover in each phase of this crisis. We are nowhere near the end. If Beijing’s behavior is allowed to continue unchallenged, it will continue to abuse our leniency. Every country in the world shares this interest; the United States should lead a more international effort in this regard.

Bill Gates is ignoring the facts about China’s actions. But sweeping things under the rug is not how you counter a pandemic; it merely encourages the Chinese government to keep doing what it’s already been doing. We must pursue the facts, avoid the politics and press China to be more transparent and less repressive — for the sake of our economy, security and health.

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Read more:

Read a letter in response to this piece: Suggestions for better solutions

Marc A. Thiessen: China should be legally liable for the pandemic damage it has done

Mitt Romney: America is awakening to China. This is a clarion call to seize the moment.

Josh Rogin: Senators demand answers from Pompeo on Wuhan lab cables

David Ignatius: The world will demand answers on covid-19 until China explains what happened

David Ignatius: How did covid-19 begin? Its initial origin story is shaky.

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 probably challenge a key line of treatment for people with compromised immune systems — the drugs known as monoclonal antibodies.

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.

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