Biden shut down Trump, Pompeo effort to prove Wuhan lab theory
The Biden administration has reportedly shut down a discrete State Department operation, launched by former President Trump and his Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, to prove the widely-disputed theory that COVID-19 originated in a lab in Wuhan, China. CNN reported Tuesday that the current administration ultimately halted the effort over concerns regarding the quality of the inquiry’s work, according to three sources familiar with the decision.
Individuals who were involved with the probe, which began last fall, told CNN that the operation was initially a genuine attempt to investigate if China’s biological weapons program may have played a larger part in the pandemic’s emergence in Wuhan.
Soon after its launch, however, the investigation became the subject of disagreement inside the State Department, with some worried that the probe was an element in the Trump administration’s wider effort to blame China for the pandemic, and hand-pick facts to help bolster a theory.
The effort’s operations were shuttered after Biden administration officials were briefed on the probe’s key findings in February and March, a State Department spokesperson told CNN.
Officials ultimately determined that the inquiry was an ineffective use of resources, after raising questions regarding the legitimacy of the team’s discoveries, a source familiar with the decision told the network.
Individuals in the Trump administration who worked on the project, however, rebuffed criticisms of their work to CNN, contending that their intention was to analyze scientific research and information from the U.S. intelligence community that bolstered the Wuhan lab leak theory, and reveal more information on how the virus could have leaked from a lab.
The State Department, in a statement to The Hill, said CNN’s report is incorrect, though it did not name the network in its statement.
“There has been incorrect reporting that the Biden-Harris Administration shut down an investigation by the State Department’s Bureau of Arms Control and Verification and Compliance (AVC) into the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic,” State Department spokesperson Ned Price said in the statement.
He said that the team’s findings were briefed to AVC and Policy Planning policy staffing in the Biden administration in February and March of this year.
“With the report delivered, the work was ended,” Price said.
Price added, however, that “All relevant parts of the Department continue to work with the interagency on this matter.”
“The world continues to have serious questions about the earliest days of the COVID-19 pandemic, including its origins within the People's Republic of China,” Price continued.
“China’s position that their part in this investigation is complete is disappointing and at odds with the rest of the international community that is working collaboratively across the board to bring an end to this pandemic and improve global health security,” he added.
The revelations regarding the now-concluded down State Department effort comes as public health officials and experts are increasingly lending credibility to the need for an investigation to probe the origins of the coronavirus.
Scientists who previously dismissed or disregarded the theory that COVID-19 could have leaked from a lab in Wuhan are now saying that an inquiry to look into the hypothesis is warranted.
While scientists have not uncovered definitive evidence that the coronavirus leaked from a lab, they also haven’t discovered proof that the virus started in animals before naturally infecting humans.
This increased support for an investigation to probe the Wuhan lab theory comes after The Wall Street Journal reported, citing a U.S. intelligence report, that a number of researchers at China’s Wuhan Institute of Virology became ill with flu-like symptoms and required hospitalization in November 2019, one month before the Chinese government says it detected its first case of COVID-19.
Joe Biden has ordered the US intelligence community to intensify its efforts to study the origins of coronavirus, adding that it will continue to press for China to participate in a full investigation.
The president said he received a report earlier this month with the “most up-to-date analysis of the origins of Covid-19”, but had asked intelligence agencies to “redouble” their efforts to identify a “definitive conclusion” on how the virus was first transmitted in humans.
“I have now asked the intelligence community to redouble their efforts to collect and analyze information that could bring us closer to a definitive conclusion, and to report back to me in 90 days. As part of that report, I have asked for areas of further inquiry that may be required, including specific questions for China,” Biden said in a statement on Wednesday.
The novel coronavirus was first detected in the Chinese city of Wuhan in late 2019 and has since spread around the world, killing almost 3.5 million people and infecting almost 168 million, according to Johns Hopkins.
Much remains unknown about its origins and China has been sensitive about any suggestion it could have done more in the early stages of the pandemic to stop it.
Biden’s request included asking the US intelligence community to explore the unlikely possibility that the origins of the virus trace to Chinese lab. After months of minimizing the possibility as a fringe theory, the Biden administration is responding both to domestic and geopolitical concerns about putting pressure on China to be transparent about the outbreak.
Republicans, including former president Donald Trump, have promoted the theory that the virus emerged from a laboratory accident, rather than naturally through human contact with an infected animal.
Biden’s request comes days after the Wall Street Journal broke the news of a previously undisclosed US intelligence report about three Wuhan researchers being hospitalized with coronavirus-like symptoms in November 2019. The report intensified public speculation that the virus began spreading as a result of a laboratory accident.
In his statement, Biden said the majority of the US intelligence community had “coalesced” around those two likely scenarios but “do not believe there is sufficient information to assess one to be more likely than the other”. He revealed that two of the 18 intelligence agencies lean toward the animal link and “one leans more toward” the lab theory, adding, “each with low or moderate confidence”.
Biden directed US national laboratories to assist with the investigation and called on China to cooperate with international inquiries into the origins of the pandemic. Biden said he has also asked the intelligence community to keep Congress apprised of its work on the matter.
“The United States will also keep working with like-minded partners around the world to press China to participate in a full, transparent, evidence-based international investigation and to provide access to all relevant data and evidence,” he said.
Earlier this year China refused to authorize a fact-finding mission to the country by the World Health Organization (WHO) to study the origins of Covid-19. The move came amid Beijing’s attempts to reshape the narrative of where the disease originated.
Asked if the US intelligence community has ruled out the possibility of a deliberate release of coronavirus, deputy White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre replied: “We haven’t ruled out anything yet.”
Speaking on Wednesday, she repeatedly emphasized that the administration will have more information to offer on the investigation into the origins of coronavirus once the review is completed.
Jean-Pierre repeatedly criticized China for not being transparent with its information on the origins of the virus, echoing comments from other senior administration officials and international leaders.
White House press secretary, Jen Psaki, said Tuesday that the White House supports a new WHO investigation in China, but added it “would require China finally stepping up and allowing access needed to determine the origins.”
Biden, for his part, held out the possibility that a firm conclusion may never be known, given the Chinese government’s refusal to fully cooperate with international investigations.
“The failure to get our inspectors on the ground in those early months will always hamper any investigation into the origin of Covid-19,” he added in his statement Wednesday.
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