Commentary on Political Economy

Thursday 3 June 2021


The World Needs Answers on Covid’s Origin

China wants the issue to go away. The U.S. should use all of its tools to keep the pressure on Beijing.

By David Asher
A security guard tries to block a photograph of the Wuhan Institute of Virology in Wuhan, China, Jan. 27. PHOTO: ROMAN PILIPEY/EPA/SHUTTERSTOCK
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Covid-19 began trickling out of Wuhan, China, at least a year and a half ago. The world still knows far too little about the origins of the outbreak. Theories include a zoonotic host, a bat cave, a frozen food shipment from Southeast Asia, and—the likeliest explanation—an accidental leak from a virology lab with ties to China’s biological-warfare program.

Whatever you believe, getting to the bottom of the case demands American leaders apply new pressure on the Chinese Communist Party. It’s crucial that the world learn how the pandemic started and the extent to which Beijing’s lies fueled this global crisis. The U.S. must show that such malfeasance won’t be tolerated.

Opinion: Potomac Watch

From the beginning, China crushed or co-opted good-faith efforts to understand the virus’s origin and spread. It made whistleblowers disappear, refused to turn over blood samples from early patients and destroyed the wet market. The Communist Party successfully pushed to exclude Taiwan from the 2020 World Health Assembly—depriving the world of the chance to learn from a state that had successfully contained the virus. Beijing spread misinformation by claiming that American soldiers visiting Wuhan had brought the virus to China. Perhaps most notably, the party played puppet master to the feckless World Health Organization investigation into the outbreak.

The only thing more surreal than the Chinese Communist Party’s “nothing to see here” attitude has been its uncritical acceptance by Western elites. But international demands for a deeper WHO investigation are growing, and the Biden administration has directed the U.S. intelligence community to report on the circumstances surrounding the virus’s origin.

It isn’t a bad start, but there’s more to be done. If the Biden administration means what it says about upholding the international rules-based order, it will impose consequences on countries that fail to abide by the rules. The administration should cite China for violating the WHO’s International Health Regulations by disregarding requests for consultations and refusing to share data with other member states.

Congress, with the administration’s full support, should empower an independent and bipartisan investigative commission to get to the bottom of the origins of the outbreak. Given how the WHO investigation was co-opted by the Communist Party, this commission could use all information at the federal government’s disposal to investigate Covid-19’s origins and the party’s role, including the possibility that the virus was engineered in a lab doing work for China’s biological-weapons program. Such an inquiry could also explore failures to contain the virus and provide recommendations on averting a future pandemic or worse.

The administration should also reimpose the Obama-era ban on “gain of function” research cooperation between the U.S. and China, which the U.S. previously failed to police. Gain of function involves genetically altering diseases to enhance their virulence, pathogenicity and transferability between species to study how they might potentially evolve in nature. Such research has obvious potential for use in the development of bioweapons.

China must disclose whether its virus research programs abide by the peaceful-purposes clause of the Biological Weapons Convention, to which China has acceded. Absent a credible explanation of events, the Biden administration should begin preparing sanctions against the Wuhan Institute of Virology, the Chinese Academy of Sciences and their commercial partners for undertaking biological weapons related research and development on behalf of the Chinese military.

To get ahead of the next biological disaster, the National Institutes of Health and the Food and Drug Administration must step up detection and tracking of research efforts centering on diseases with the potential to trigger pandemics. There’s urgent work to do to develop a larger global early-warning system. Just as international networks share data on weather patterns and seismic activity, an international biosensing network could serve as a warning system for natural or man-made disease outbreaks. If China is serious about preserving world health, it could be a founding participant; if not, the network could be used to monitor bio-threats emanating from inside its borders.

Congress should update the Chemical and Biological Weapons Control and Warfare Elimination Act to impose sanctions on entities that improperly maintain their biological facilities or withhold information about dangerous virological events. The American government should take a full-spectrum approach that directly targets the people, entities and activities involved in China’s biological warfare research and development—including the export of dual-use civilian technologies from the U.S. to China that the Communist Party systematically redirects to malicious military purposes.

Finally, Congress could waive legal sovereign-immunity protections and support legal claims by U.S. citizens against the Chinese Communist Party if it doesn’t provide quick access to hard evidence about the outbreak. Beijing wants chatter about the outbreak—and the coverup—to go away. Letting litigants seek damages from any Chinese citizens or entities implicated in gross negligence will keep the issue alive in the courts and the public eye.

With each passing day we get further from the origins of the pandemic. Now is the time for the U.S. government to get to the bottom of how the virus emerged so that we can prevent future pandemics—and reject the Communist Party’s efforts to distort the facts and control the narrative.

Mr. Asher is a senior fellow at Hudson Institute and a former State Department staffer. He led the department’s task force investigating the origins of Covid-19 and the role of the Chinese Communist Party.

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