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The Biden administration is putting little public pressure on China to investigate the possibility that COVID-19 escaped from a Wuhan laboratory, despite growing interest in investigating the origins of the pandemic.
Several Biden administration officials have downplayed the need to push China directly for answers about work its scientists were performing at a virology lab near the epicenter of the outbreak in Wuhan.
Instead, the Biden administration has cited the role of diplomacy in prying loose answers from Chinese authorities — even though the same approach has yielded little access to key facilities and data over the past year.
Multiple administration officials have also argued transparency about China’s knowledge of the pandemic's origins would serve the country’s interests given that it also suffered human and economic losses, minimizing the likelihood that Chinese authorities would willfully conceal anything from the international community. But critics have noted that China would actually have a deep interest in hiding a lab accident from investigators if that was indeed the source of the virus because the revelation of a lab leak would also suggest a massive cover-up.
“I don’t want to get into hypotheticals going forward in the future about what we would or would not do, but I think I can say with confidence that there is going to be an increasing international demand that countries, including China, meet their responsibilities when it comes to providing information, access, and transparency,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken told lawmakers on Monday when pressed about what the United States would do to compel China to cooperate in the COVID-19 origin investigation.
Asked more directly on Tuesday if he would support levying sanctions on China if its officials continue to block investigators, Blinken declined to answer, only saying his agency would “take a look” at the option.
Although President Joe Biden has requested a unilateral investigation into the origins of COVID-19 by his intelligence community to be completed in 90 days, administration officials have repeatedly pointed to the World Health Organization as the primary vehicle for digging into the lab leak hypothesis.
Brett Schaefer, senior research fellow for international regulatory affairs at the Heritage Foundation, said Biden’s decision at the outset of his presidency to rejoin WHO, from which former President Donald Trump withdrew last year, weakened the ability of U.S. officials to demand an aggressive investigation into the virus's origins.
“It was a rash decision because what it did was it preemptively disarmed the United States in terms of its leverage with the organization,” Schaefer told the Washington Examiner.
“Essentially what the Biden administration did is, it took pressure off of the World Health Organization to really, thoroughly investigate the origins of COVID-19, and provided China with the excuse to point to this very flawed investigation from the World Health Organization and say, ‘We’ve already looked into the matter,’” he added.
Schaefer was referring to a much-criticized report the WHO released in March.
Investigators on the WHO’s team did not press Chinese authorities for access to the Wuhan Institute of Virology, where researchers are believed to have been studying coronaviruses in the months before the outbreak in a market nearby. The report also concluded with unfounded certainty the virus likely emerged naturally from an animal near Wuhan — even though the WHO team’s acknowledged its tests of roughly 80,000 animals across 31 Chinese provinces did not uncover a single case of COVID-19 in the wild.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergies and Infectious Diseases, argued last week that accusing China of obstruction would only exacerbate the problem.
“It’s obviously in China’s interest to find out exactly what it is. And the ‘is’ of the natural theory would be to find that link so you have to keep looking for it,” Fauci said, referring to the undiscovered animal reservoir from which COVID-19 was initially thought to have emerged.
“I mean, obviously, you want openness and cooperation. One of the ways you can get it is don’t be accusatory," he said. “Try to get both a forensic, a scientific, and an investigational approach. I think the accusatory part of that is only going to make them pull back even more.”
At the World Health Assembly in late May, a Chinese representative said China’s role in participating in the WHO’s COVID-19 origins investigation should be done following the publication of its March report.
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Even so, White House press secretary Jen Psaki on Monday cited the WHO as a top partner in continuing to push for answers from China.
“We are engaging, certainly, at the highest levels, and we’ll continue to do that, whether it’s the secretary of state or other leaders who engage on — through national security, diplomatic conversations,” she told reporters during a briefing at the White House. “And we will continue to work through the WHO and also with our international partners to exert that pressure and ensure that we’re all going to keep pressing for them to release underlying data and participate in the second stage of this investigation.”
A review of Blinken’s schedules shows the secretary of state has had no public calls with Chinese authorities since Biden announced a renewed investigation into the origins of COVID-19.
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Original Author: Sarah Westwood
Original Location: How Biden administration is avoiding pressure on China over COVID-19 origins