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Senators press President Biden to take new steps to uncover origins of COVID-19

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WASHINGTON — A bipartisan group of senators is urging President Joe Biden to take new steps to uncover the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic amid resistance from China for additional access and data.

"Identifying where the virus originated and how it first spread will be critical to preventing future pandemics," four top senators wrote in a letter to Biden released on Wednesday.

The missive was signed by Sens. Mark Warner, D-Va., and Marco Rubio, R-Fla., who lead the Senate intelligence committee, as well as Sens. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and Jim Risch, R-Idaho, the top Republican on that panel.

"A full and impartial investigation that carefully considers all credible theories, backed by all available evidence, is critical," the four lawmakers wrote.

Rubio and others say the virus may have leaked from a virology lab in Wuhan, China, and that theory needs to be fully probed.

Last week, Chinese officials refused the World Health Organization’s request for a second phase of study into the origins of COVID-19. The WHO plan included further investigation of the lab leak theory.

Zeng Yixin, the vice minister of the National Health Commission, dismissed the lab leak idea as a rumor that runs counter to common sense and science.

“It is impossible for us to accept such an origin-tracing plan,” he said at a July 22 news conference.

WASHINGTON, DC - MAY 26: Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) speaks during a Senate Appropriations Subcommittee hearing May 26, 2021 on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C.
WASHINGTON, DC - MAY 26: Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) speaks during a Senate Appropriations Subcommittee hearing May 26, 2021 on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C.

The Biden administration slammed China’s decision.

"We’re deeply disappointed," White House press secretary Jen Psaki said last week. "Their position is irresponsible and, frankly, dangerous."

Psaki said additional study was needed to prevent the next pandemic and suggested Chinese officials were "stonewalling."

In May, Biden directed U.S. intelligence agencies to report on the likely origins of COVID-19 within a 90 deadline. The president said the intelligence assessment would be released publicly unless there is information he's “not aware of.”

In their letter, Rubio and the three other senators ask the Biden administration to take three key steps they say will help determine how COVID-19 became an international health and security threat.

The steps include:

  • Directing the intelligence community to continue thoroughly investigating the source of COVID-19 "until there is a conclusion in which the United States has a high degree of confidence."

  • Working with allies and partners to pressure Beijing into allowing a transparent investigation.

  • Reviewing all existing and previous support or funding for biotech research done in collaboration with China.

Earlier this year, a WHO-led team of scientists was granted limited access to Chinese labs studying viruses similar to COVID-19 determined a lab leak was an "extremely unlikely pathway." Though the U.S. and other countries expressed concerns about the thoroughness of the study, the WHO team concluded that the virus most likely jumped from animals to humans, probably from bats to an intermediate animal. The experts visited markets in Wuhan that had sold live animals, and recommended further study of the farms that supplied the market.

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the director-general of WHO, said earlier this month that there had been a “premature push” after the first phase of the study to rule out the theory that the virus might have escaped from a Chinese government lab in Wuhan, the city where the disease was first detected in late 2019.

Rubio sought to force the hand of the Chinese Communist Party by introducing the COVID Act of 2021 in June.The proposal would sanction the leadership of the Chinese Academy of Sciences and suspend federal research funding, among other penalties, if China refuses to allow a comprehensive investigation into Wuhan labs.

Contributing: The Associated Press

Reach Chelsey Cox on Twitter @therealco.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: COVID: Senators press Biden to take new steps to uncover virus origins

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