US President Joe Biden’s statement two days ago on the investigation into the origins of Covid-19 shows the US intelligence community is making progress towards uncovering whether the virus was released because of a laboratory accident or from human contact with an infected animal.
Biden tells us his intelligence agencies agree these are the two likely scenarios, with one agency leaning towards the lab accident, two towards the pangolin-bites-man theory, while the others “do not believe there is sufficient information to assess one to be more likely than the other”.
It’s no small thing to get all 18 US intelligence agencies agreeing that the laboratory accident scenario was a likely cause of the pandemic. The agencies clearly have made progress since their first statement, Intelligence Community Statement on Origins of Covid-19, released in April last year, which found the virus “was not man-made or genetically modified”. They could do no more than promise to “rigorously examine emerging information” about the origins of Covid-19.
Biden has given his intelligence system 90 days to “bring us closer to a definitive conclusion”. I’ll speculate here that the administration thinks a conclusion can be made. Why set up the intelligence agencies to fail?
The President also said the further inquiry would include asking “specific questions for China”. It is astonishing that it has taken 15 months before a US administration decided to put Beijing on the spot with some direct questions. In effect, Xi Jinping is on 90 days’ notice for his regime to put aside the bluster and make its own case about the two likely scenarios.
I’m with the courageous US intelligence agency that is leaning towards the laboratory accident scenario. Here are my reasons for this view.
First, we know China has long had an interest in developing biological and chemical weapons. The US State Department made that assessment public years ago.
Second, we know Chinese military personnel and scientists have written studies on how to fight wars with biological agents. The Australian’s Sharri Markson has reported extensively on this. It’s true there is a huge volume of Chinese military writing that does not necessarily represent Chinese Communist Party policy, but it’s significant that specialists inside Chinese military science are writing on this subject.
Third, we know the Wuhan Institute of Virology is designed to be a secure bio-research facility and before 2019 was working on coronaviruses, including on so-called gain-of-function research on how to make viruses more virulent.
The much-discredited Joint World Health Organisation-China Study into the origin of the pandemic said the strain of coronavirus closest in genetic makeup (in fact, 96.2 per cent identical) to the Covid-19 virus was “detected in bat anal swabs (that) have been sequenced at the Wuhan Institute of Virology”.
Fourth, we know serious concerns existed about security at the institute. In late 2017 the US embassy in Beijing flagged these worries in a cable reporting there was “a serious shortage of appropriately trained technicians and investigators needed to safely operate this high-containment laboratory”. The embassy was so worried it wanted Washington to help China improve the laboratory’s biosecurity. The proposal was never acted on.
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Fifth, we know the Wuhan institute was presenting itself as a civilian institution, but a US intelligence judgment reported by Donald Trump’s secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, in January was that “the WIV has engaged in classified research, including laboratory animal experiments, on behalf of the Chinese military since at least 2017”.
Six, a point highlighted in the WHO-China Study, the WIV-linked Chinese Centre for Disease Control laboratory moved on December 2, 2019, to a new location near the Huanan wet market. The study dryly states, “Such moves can be disruptive for the operations of any laboratory.”
The seventh point is that it seems at least three workers at the WIV fell ill with Covid-19-like symptoms some time before the first publicly known cases emerged in December 2019. This was mentioned by Pompeo in January and is being bolstered, according to The New York Times, with corroborating information from non-US sources.
Finally, there is the remarkable CCP cover-up of the whole issue: the fatuous claims that Covid-19 was planted by US military personnel visiting Wuhan, or arrived on frozen salmon; the refusal to hand over samples of the original virus as opposed to the genomic sequence; the refusal to grant access to the WIV until the tightly stage-managed WHO-China Study visit on February 3; the over-the-top attempts to prevent international access to research the virus; and the hysterical denunciation of Scott Morrison’s request for a credible international examination.
It is almost as though Xi has something to hide.
Put these elements together and it becomes clear that China was working on coronaviruses, was interested in biological weapons, had thought about how to fight with them and had sufficiently shoddy processes to make the laboratory accident scenario a real possibility.
Something else we should be clear about is that once the virus was released, the CCP instantly weaponised its use. It allowed international flights out of Wuhan for weeks while countries dithered about closing borders.
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Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi told Marise Payne on January 30 last year, “Given the current situation, the epidemic is generally preventable, controllable and curable.” This was at precisely the time China was stripping stocks of medical equipment and protective gear from Australia and other democracies.
Again to speculate: I suspect Biden has a clear sense about what his intelligence review will find. We are getting closer to uncovering the reality of what happened in Wuhan. The truth could force a rethink about how the democratic world deals with Xi’s China, and domestically Xi’s legitimacy as the people’s hero in the struggle against Covid-19 will take a significant blow.
Peter Jennings is executive director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute and a former deputy secretary for strategy in the Department of Defence.