President Biden is turning to confront the mystery surrounding the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic, a move that provides political cover at home but could fuel greater tensions with China.
Biden is under pressure to reveal what the U.S. intelligence community knows about the possibility the coronavirus first leaked from the Wuhan Institute of Virology in China following reports that at least three scientists were hospitalized weeks before the first infections were reported to the international community.
Amid allegations that his administration shut down an investigation into the matter at the State Department begun by the former Trump administration, the president has given intelligence officials 90 days to declassify a report surrounding the lab theory, which contradicts the long-held zoonotic rationale for the coronavirus.
Former President Trump and some of his top administration officials repeatedly suggested last year that the virus could have come from a lab in Wuhan, though they could not provide evidence to support their claims. While the theory gained traction in conservative circles, it was dismissed among many public health experts, and Democrats brushed it off as an effort by Trump to deflect from his troubled pandemic response in an election year.
Biden’s move follows passage of legislation in the Senate on Wednesday night requiring the Office of Director of National Intelligence to release its report about the virus’s origins, spearheaded by GOP Sens. Josh Hawley (Mo.) and Mike Braun (Ind.).
Republicans have homed in on the unanswered questions as evidence Biden is failing to confront China with sufficient force, as the two countries are locked in a battle for global influence.
“The American people deserve to have all of the evidence,” Hawley said on the Senate floor Wednesday ahead of the bill's passage, “and deserve to have this government's full effort, and the effort of our allies and partners in holding accountable, China, for what it has done not just to this country but to the world, and to make sure that something like this never happens again.”
GOP Sens. Rick Scott (Fla.) and Ron Johnson (Wis.) are further pressing the administration to answer for its termination of the State Department probe into COVID-19’s origins.
Beijing rejects allegations that it is withholding information or obstructing efforts to determine the origins of the virus, which was first detected in the city of Wuhan in late December 2019 and has since killed more than 3.5 million people globally.
While the scientific community believes the virus likely originated in animals before being passed on to humans, public health experts say having clear information about the origins of the virus and the path of transmission to humans are essential to helping the world safeguard against the next pandemic.
“If it leaked out of a laboratory where a lab worker got infected and took that infection home and infected others, what safeguards can we put in these laboratories to make sure there’s a standard where this doesn’t happen?” asked Rep. Ami Bera (D-Calif.), a member of the House Foreign Relations Committee and a former practicing physician.
Ahead of a second phase of an World Health Organization-led study into the origins of the virus, the U.S. is pressing for the Chinese government to be more transparent following criticisms of the preliminary findings that were released in March.
“Phase 2 of the COVID origins study must be launched with terms of reference that are transparent, science-based, and give international experts the independence to fully assess the source of the virus and the early days of the outbreak,” Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra told the World Health Assembly on Tuesday.
Experts questioned the usefulness of an investigation led by the WHO given China had not cooperated with scientists trying to get on the ground and look into the virus when it was first spreading in late 2019. Without cooperation from Beijing, experts said, it may not be possible to determine with a degree of certainty the true origin of the virus.
The U.S. intelligence community said in a statement on Thursday that it has coalesced around two theories for the origin of the virus, that it emerged naturally from human contact with infected animals or was the result of a laboratory accident — but that there is not “sufficient information to assess one to be more likely than the other."
Biden’s directive for the intelligence community to spend another 90 days looking into the origins of the virus marked a subtle but notable shift from the White House’s stance earlier in the week, when press secretary Jen Psaki repeatedly indicated the administration would support an independent investigation, but not taking a leading role in conducting it.
The shift offers Biden a chance to appease both Democrats and Republicans who have urged him to get tough on China, but it risks further straining the relationship between the two nations.
“Given where U.S.-China relations are, it’s even less likely for [China] to be forthcoming,” said Scott Kennedy, an expert on China policy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“There’s a genuine value to know the origins of the current pandemic to help prevent future pandemics,” Kennedy added. “But as a strategic move it also clearly puts China on the defensive. It highlights some of the weaknesses of their system, particularly with regard to transparency and the consequences that has for others.”
A foreign ministry spokesperson in Beijing responded to Biden’s order for a more intensive review by calling the investigation politically motivated and alluding to a baseless conspiracy theory that a U.S. military base may have ties to the origins of the virus.
Biden has attempted to strike something of a balance on policy toward China so far. He included Chinese President Xi Jinping in a climate summit with world leaders in April and has spoken about the need for global cooperation to combat problems including climate change and the pandemic.
But Biden has kept Trump-era tariffs on China in place, and he has frequently spoken about the need to pass policies that will allow the U.S. to compete with China economically for years to come. He has at times framed that competition in existential terms, cautioning in March that Xi “doesn’t have a democratic ... bone in his body” and “thinks that autocracy is the wave of the future.”
A summit between Secretary of State Antony Blinken, national security adviser Jake Sullivan and their Chinese counterparts in Alaska in March proved to be only the opening salvo of a more contentious relationship.
“In a way you could say it's going from bad to worse,” Daniel Markey, senior research professor in international relations with the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies, said of the latest point of contention between Washington and Beijing.
He added that Biden has so far maintained a hawkish stance on China, blending his policy goals with fending off political attacks from Republicans.
“His interest and capacity for playing the foreign policy issues through the domestic political issues and vice versa, I don’t know if it's unmatched but it’s unusual,” Markey said.
The expected nomination of veteran senior State Department official, Biden campaign surrogate and Harvard professor Nicholas Burns as U.S. ambassador to China is viewed as a positive development in U.S. and China relations as they seek to navigate the increasingly fraught relationship.
“This is a super pick, somebody who’s served at some of the top levels within the State Department and also has the political connections,” Markey said.
“I think China will see that as generally positive, even though the tenor of the relationship is clearly very bad, because that’s the kind of person that, when they choose to do business, he’s the kind of person that can actually get things done.”