Then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and President Donald Trump missed no opportunity to bash China over the virus, trying to divert attention from Mr. Trump’s disastrous pandemic response. Setting aside this scapegoating, the origins of the coronavirus remain unknown. Did the virus leap directly from an animal host in nature to humans, which many scientists believe is highly likely, or from an inadvertent leak or accident at a Chinese laboratory, possibly the WIV? The answers will be important to prevent a future pandemic and must be pursued vigorously, even though China covered up the early stages of the pandemic and has advanced dubious theories to suggest it originated beyond China’s borders.
Mr. Pompeo issued a statement and fact sheet on Jan. 15 claiming the U.S. government “has reason to believe that several researchers inside the WIV became sick in autumn 2019, before the first identified case of the outbreak, with symptoms consistent with both COVID-19 and common seasonal illnesses.” Mr. Pompeo does not categorically claim the workers had covid, only raising the possibility of that or seasonal illnesses, such as influenza. Both are respiratory illnesses.
If true, it would be useful to know if any workers were quarantined or if there is cellphone mobility data to track what happened to them.
Mr. Pompeo said the U.S. information “raises questions” about Chinese denials that the laboratory was the source. A senior researcher at the WIV, Shi Zhengli, was working on “gain of function” experiments, which involve modifying viral genomes to give them new properties, including the ability to infect lung cells of laboratory animals that had been genetically modified to respond as human respiratory cells would. Mr. Pompeo noted that China “prevented independent journalists, investigators, and global health authorities from interviewing researchers at the WIV, including those who were ill in the fall of 2019.” Matthew Pottinger, who was deputy national security adviser under Mr. Trump and is a China specialist, said on CBS’s “Face the Nation” Sunday the Jan. 15 statement was “very carefully crafted” and “scrubbed” by the administration. The statement also claimed the WIV had been engaged in secret projects with China’s military involving laboratory animal experiments.
When a World Health Organization team recently wrapped up its initial investigative visit to Wuhan, the team leader said the laboratory leak scenario was highly unlikely. However, State Department spokesman Ned Price said Feb. 9 that the Biden administration would “draw on information collected and analyzed by our own intelligence community to evaluate the report” from the WHO. Mr. Price emphasized the need for “full transparency.”
Full transparency is needed from China but also from the United States. The intelligence behind Mr. Pompeo’s statements should be declassified, with proper protection for sources and methods. The truth matters, and the United States should not hide any relevant evidence.