The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion What the debate over the coronavirus’s origins really needs is a thorough investigation

A woman walks past a model of the Earth on Monday in Wuhan, China.
A woman walks past a model of the Earth on Monday in Wuhan, China. (Getty Images)
Placeholder while article actions load

WHILE THE debate over the origins of the coronavirus pandemic grows louder by the day, there’s still no thorough investigation underway. The World Health Assembly, the governing body of the World Health Organization, concluded its session recently without a resolution on it. President Biden has asked for U.S. intelligence agencies to redouble their efforts and report back in three months. What’s really needed is a commitment of time, resources and talent — scientific and otherwise — to find out where and how the pandemic began.

There are two viable hypotheses: a spillover from animals to humans, or the result of a laboratory accident or infection. Both hypotheses lead to China, which has vigorously denied the laboratory scenario and often insists that the culprits are beyond its borders. The work of a joint WHO-China mission was wholly insufficient. WHO director general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus declared in March that he was taking neither theory off the table and was ready to launch a Phase II investigation. It must go ahead, but China’s steadfast recalcitrance and the WHO’s structure as a member organization without enforcement and investigative power will pose serious challenges. The proposal for a U.S. national commission is worthwhile, but it would not be entirely devoted to how the pandemic began. It may also be necessary to bring together global scientific expertise for a credible investigation that would run deep.

The whole world was unprepared for this disaster. The reason to investigate the virus origins is important: to help inform and prepare for the next pandemic.

One of the most intriguing statements about the virus origins was made Jan. 15 by outgoing Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, claiming that “several” workers at the Wuhan Institute of Virology got sick in the “autumn” of 2019, before the pandemic, with “symptoms consistent with both covid-19 and common seasonal illnesses.” It is known the institute was conducting experiments to genetically modify the bat coronavirus to infect mice carrying humanlike lung cells. The institute told the WHO mission that none of its workers had gotten infected. But in an article published Thursday, Vanity Fair magazine reported that the three workers who fell ill and were hospitalized were involved with these experiments to modify the virus. The magazine details an intense debate at the State Department over the virus origins issues late last year and early this year, which included a three-hour video call on Jan. 7 involving outside scientists in a “red team” exercise to challenge the lab leak theory. Many of the questions that have dogged the Wuhan institute came up, but the result was inconclusive. However, the department went ahead with the public statement about the three lab workers. The administration should now declassify that intelligence entirely.

A Chinese official recently said that the joint mission with the WHO had come up with nothing and that “I think that’s the end of the story.” But it is not, and that’s the trouble. This is not even the beginning of the story.

Read more:

Marc A. Thiessen: The case that the virus emerged from nature, not a lab, is falling apart

Matt Bai: The origins of covid-19 and the shadow of the Trump era

Michael Gerson: The right is dwelling on slanderous myths about the origins of covid-19

Josh Rogin: Biden’s announcement is the beginning, not the end, of a real covid origin investigation

Leana S. Wen: How to investigate the lab-leak theory without inflaming anti-Asian hate