Two weeks ago, in response to the mounting evidence of the plausibility of the theory that SARS-CoV-2 may have leaked from a Chinese lab, President Biden ordered an investigation into the origins of COVID-19 by the U.S. intelligence agencies and called for a full report within 90 days. But what will the Biden Administration do with the findings of the report? There is credible concern that the window to find objective evidence is closing. If the report comes back with more evidence like that which the intelligence community has had for over a year, will President Biden take action?
The federal government has already been investigating the possibility of a man-made origin of COVID-19 for over a year now. In fact, U.S. intelligence agencies confirmed last April that they were examining the possibility of a lab leak from the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV). Former President Donald J. Trump and former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told the public in late April 2020 that there was significant evidence to support the lab leak hypothesis and began discussing ways to hold China accountable for intentionally misleading the world.
Unfortunately, until last month both the hypothesis and any individual promoting it received an anti-science and conspiracist label. This labeling was applied to Senator Tom Cotton, a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, who was among the first to voice concern about the origin of the virus. Elected Republican lawmakers weren’t the only ones raising these questions. For example, Mr. Jamie Metzl, a former Clinton Administration National Security Council official with expertise in genetic engineering, explained why involvement of the WIV was the most plausible explanation of SARS-CoV-2’s origination back in July 2020. He presented similar evidence to what is circulating now—that the WIV had been in possession of the virus most genetically similar to SARS-CoV-2 since 2012 and was doing “gain of function” experiments—but these revelations did not change popular opinion last summer.
Despite the media’s dereliction of duty, the Trump Administration continued investigations and publicly released de-classified evidence from the State Department on January 15, 2021. Former Secretary Pompeo has continued the call for greater scrutiny over China’s research labs since leaving office.
And now the virus origination concern appears to be a bipartisan issue. In February 2021, the President’s National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan publicly pressed China and the World Health Organization (WHO) to be transparent and robust in their processes for investigating the origins of SARS-CoV-2 after expressing dissatisfaction with early findings of the WHO investigation. The full WHO report has largely been described as a failed effort to get necessary evidence due to lack of proper access in China.
The apparent early and continued cover-up by the People’s Republic of China (PRC) is a galling international offense. Countries around the world likely began their pandemic response with the wrong strategy. For example, rather than attempting containment strategies of a virus that may have already been widely spread in their communities, they could have immediately implemented mitigation efforts.
Lawmakers have previously suggested measures such as calling on China to forgive all of U.S. debt and a bipartisan bill currently moving through the House of Representatives would enable families of COVID-19 victims to sue China. These pieces of legislation indicate that the White House has potential partners on both sides of the aisle in Congress who are willing to think creatively about ways of holding China accountable. Accountability matters, and President Biden should act. Nearly 600,000 Americans have died and millions were at risk before a vaccine was developed.
Now is the time for President Biden to demonstrate his leadership on COVID-19. Namely, what consequences will the U.S. consider imposing on the PRC with the laboratory origin story and intentional cover-up being confirmed as increasingly likely? One such action could be alignment with other countries in trade alliances that sanction China, like the Trump Administration proposed before leaving office.
The WHO should also be held accountable. The global success of future pandemic responses depends on its reform. Doing so offers an opportunity to rethink global health and to evaluate America’s return on investment for the sizable contributions to the multilateral institution. The breakdown of the global-health infrastructure and use of ad hoc bilateral and private sector cooperation in addressing COVID-19 outbreaks around the world suggest that the U.S. can use its resources more effectively.
Indeed, the previous administration succeeded in protecting the American people by focusing on public-private partnerships and making strategic investments, like Operation Warp Speed, despite bureaucratic red tape. Today, as America emerges from the pandemic—with Americans reaping the benefits of that historic vaccine-development program—the Biden Administration can demonstrate similar leadership. The domestic and international public-health work of the federal agencies should be systematically evaluated and strengthened to first meet the needs of Americans with a special focus on preparation for future pandemic threats. This includes defined budgets and leadership positions as well as an emphasis on public-private partnerships.
Following the previous administration’s efforts over 2020 to both study and report on the origins of COVID-19, today the Biden Administration must focus on what must be done in light of those findings, not just produce another report that restates them. The world needs accountability from China—we cannot afford another cover-up.
• Lieutenant General (Ret.) Keith Kellogg is s a highly decorated, retired three star General and currently serves as Co-Chair of the America First Policy Institute’s Center for American Security. He served as National Security Advisor to former Vice President Mike Pence, and also served as the Chief of Staff and Executive Secretary of the National Security Council. Heidi Overton, M.D. is the Director of the Center for a Healthy America at the America First Policy Institute. Overton recently served as a White House Fellow in 2019-2020 in both the Office of American Innovation and the Domestic Policy Council and is a PhD candidate in Clinical Investigation at the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health.
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