PUT THIS IN the really, really annoying to Beijing column: US President Joe Biden is giving air to theories that a laboratory accident in Wuhan caused the global Covid-19 pandemic. More potentially irritatingly for Beijing, the Biden administration appears to be laying the groundwork for further international investigation into the virus’s origin, which would undercut the narrative China is promoting around its vaccine diplomacy.
Biden is not backing the lab-leak theory but says that the US intelligence community cannot reach a view with any confidence on whether the virus emerged from human contact with an infected animal or as a result of a laboratory accident. Biden has asked for a follow-up report from his intelligence services within 90 days, which he hopes will “bring us closer to a definitive conclusion”.
In recent days, US media have run stories resurrecting the lab escape theory, likely based on the US intelligence reports supporting that view. These reports cited three Wuhan Institute of Virology workers who were hospitalised in November 2019. However, there is no hard evidence about whether they were infected by the virus and, if they were, where they contracted it.
The reports have been brushed aside by Beijing. It continues to suggest that the virus could have come from a US laboratory.
Biden also says that he will keep pressing China to take part in a ‘full, transparent, evidence-based’ international investigation. Given how long it took for the World Health Organisation to get access to Wuhan for its investigation earlier this year and the rancour directed at Australia for pushing the WHO in that direction, Biden’s call for another international investigation will likely fall on deaf ears.
The WHO’s report, published in March, said it was extremely unlikely that the virus emerged from a laboratory — a view that former President Donald Trump has espoused vigorously — but acknowledged that further study was needed. The Biden administration has said from the get-go that it will not accept the conclusions of any WHO report that its intelligence services cannot verify.
The day before Biden’s comments, his health secretary, Xavier Becerra, called on the WHO to launch that second phase of its research. Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Zhao Lijian says the United States should open its bio labs around the world to an international WHO team.