The World Health Organization is facing renewed demands for an answer to a key question about the coronavirus pandemic: How did it begin?
President Biden set a 90-day deadline this week for U.S. intelligence agencies to come “closer to a definitive conclusion” on the origins of the coronavirus, and made a new call for an ambitious global investigation, amid a surge in interest in theories that the virus could have leaked from a lab.
The U.S. initiative was partly a response on dismissive remarks about an investigation made by a Chinese official at a WHO event on Tuesday, officials said.
The WHO, an overstretched United Nations agency responsible for coordinating the international response to the pandemic, is feeling the pressure. But it has few powers to investigate on its own.
WHO emergencies chief Mike Ryan said Friday that the organization was still consulting with an expert team that visited the virus’s initial epicenter of Wuhan, China, earlier this year about how to proceed with their investigation. All hypotheses remain open, he said.
He added, however, the politicized blame games had gotten in the way. “This whole process is being poisoned by politics,” Ryan said.
Biden’s statement this week appeared to be timed for international impact. His remarks came in the midst of a weeklong ministerial meeting that sets the WHO agenda for the year.
“Biden’s instincts are that [an investigation] would be better off coming from an international body like the World Health Organization,” said Lawrence Gostin, a professor of global health law at Georgetown University.
U.S. officials at the event, the World Health Assembly, issued new calls for an international investigation on Tuesday — which Chinese delegates resisted.
“The real fight is what’s happening at the World Health Assembly,” said Jamie Metzl, a National Security Council staffer in the Clinton administration who organized an open letter calling for more scrutiny of the Wuhan lab this year.
One Chinese official at the assembly said Tuesday that “China’s part” in the WHO’s probe into the virus’s origins “has been completed,” and that the investigation should focus elsewhere, an apparent reference to the unsupported Chinese theory that the virus was imported into China, possibly on frozen food.
According to some experts, pushing on the public for further investigation could lead Beijing to close up even more.
“It is like poking China in the eye,” said Yanzhong Huang, a senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Though China does not hold a formal veto at the 194-member assembly, set to conclude Monday, it wields enormous influence. Beijing has successfully blocked the inclusion of Taiwan at the body for years.
Before last year’s assembly, a proposal put forward by Australia for a full, independent investigation into the origins of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, met strong opposition from China.
It was replaced by a compromise: a joint China-WHO study that passed the assembly with a record 136 motions.
The China-WHO investigators released a report in March that focused on the idea of “zoonotic” spread from a bat through another animal to humans, dismissing the idea it could have leaked from the Wuhan Institute of Virology as “extremely unlikely.”
The expert team stated considered the idea that the virus could have been imported to China on frozen food was more worthy of investigation.
The report’s conclusion drew a rare rebuke from Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the WHO’s director general, who said that the assessment of the possibility the virus was introduced to humans through a laboratory incident was not “extensive enough.”
Under the Trump administration, the United States took a hands-off approach to multilateral institutions. The U.S.-WHO relationship became openly hostile during the pandemic.
During last year’s assembly, President Donald Trump tweeted a scathing letter addressed to Tedros that threatened to pull the body out in 30 days.
After Biden entered office in January, the United States adopted a more cooperative approach, realigning itself with the WHO and backing some of its key efforts, such as the vaccine-sharing program COVAX.
At the assembly on Tuesday, Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra carefully directed his words not at the WHO, but at Beijing.
International experts should be given “the independence to fully assess the source of the virus and the early days of the outbreak,” referencing the restrictions on the 17 international experts who traveled to Wuhan early this year, Becerra said.
The United States also released a statement, co-signed with 13 other countries, that called for a “transparent and independent analysis and evaluation, free from interference and undue influence, of the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic.”
China has shown little sign of backing down, however, with Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Zhao Lijian saying Thursday that the United States “does not care about facts and truth.”
Even if the assembly backed a motion for a broader investigation, Gostin said, China could simply opt out.
“The WHO simply has no power to require China to allow it onto its territory or to hand over data and specimen samples as well as genomic sequencing information,” he said. “Tedros’s hands are completely tied.”
Nonetheless, forcing China to keep blocking an investigation has a point, said Metzl, who has worked both with Biden as a Senate aide and with the WHO as an adviser.
It makes “completely clear to everyone on Earth that China intends to continue its massive and ongoing cover up,” Metzl said.
In turn, that would provide Biden legitimacy if he seeks to investigate the coronavirus′s origins in China through other means.
Metzl suggested that any number of bodies, including the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development or the Quad — an informal grouping of Australia, India, Japan and the United States — could play a role.
However, while the push against China has bipartisan support in the United States, few other nations appear as eager for a fight.
And without Chinese cooperation, foreign nations may be forced to rely on a less precise measure: intelligence gleamed from espionage and surveillance.
According to some analysts, the pandemic has shown the limitations of U.S. intelligence gathering in China. Though sharing through Five Eyes or other groups may yield new clues, Biden’s statement this week suggested that evidence collected so far only inspired “low or moderate confidence.”
Gostin said that despite calls for a congressional inquiry in the United States, such domestic efforts would likely be hindered by similar limitations.
“Members of Congress have zero access to the kind of data and specimens that it would need on the ground in China to be able to make any kind of an assessment,” said Gostin, adding that as far as he could see, it was “political theater.”
At the WHO briefing on Friday, officials said that while they welcomed offers of aid from member countries, they wanted to keep the focus on scientific analysis.
“Let the scientists be scientists,” said Maria Van Kerkhove, head of the WHO’s emerging disease and zoonosis unit.