Beijing Must Come Clean About COVID-19 Origins | Opinion

U.S. intelligence reports that suggest the Chinese People's Liberation Army was conducting secret animal research with highly contagious viruses at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, without notifying the World Health Organization even after the pandemic began, raise new questions about the possible laboratory origins of COVID-19 that must be addressed.

This and other evidence of Chinese obfuscation and malfeasance make abundantly clear that an investigation into the origins of COVID-19 overly relying on Chinese transparency and goodwill, including the current and critically important WHO-led effort, can no longer be considered fully credible unless immediately proven otherwise. For all of our sakes, the time has come for an impartial and thorough investigation into how this terrible crisis began.

Although the failures of many governments and international organizations during the pandemic must all be analyzed and addressed, knowing how this crisis started is the essential foundation for prioritizing next steps.

If sloppy biolab security or reckless military experimentation followed by a coverup were the proximate cause, we need to prioritize developing rules and safeguards to make a global pandemic less likely to happen again. If the origins are revealed to be more innocent—a virus jumping naturally from mammals to humans—we will need to prioritize monitoring and containing future zoonotic outbreaks. Until we know what happened, we all remain unnecessarily at risk.

It's been a full year after the COVID-19 outbreak. We still know too little about its origin. In comparison, a year after the 2003 SARS coronavirus outbreak, we had much stronger evidence to hypothesize how and where that virus jumped from animals to humans.

Although China has every incentive to clear up suspicions of a lab accident by showing that the novel coronavirus, like SARS, infected humans through a "natural" zoonotic event, the absence of any concrete evidence of this type of transmission, and Beijing's herculean efforts to stymie investigations into the origins of the outbreak by destroying samples, hiding data, silencing Chinese scientists and journalists and spreading misinformation about the origins of the pandemic, are at best telling and at worst incriminating.

But while evidence of a zoonotic jump in the wild, or at a market, or farm has been starkly absent, the case that COVID-19 might have reached humans through an accidental leak from the Wuhan Institute of Virology seems like an ever-greater possibility.

The closest known genetic relative of the SARS-CoV-2 virus is the RaTG13 virus, which was discovered in a bat-infested cave in Southern China in 2013. Samples of that virus and others were then taken to the Wuhan Institute of Virology, a facility with a spotty safety record.

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A senior pharmacist prepares a Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccination for administration on January 12, 2021, in Las Vegas, Nevada. Ethan Miller/Getty Images

We know that many viruses at the Institute were manipulated using "gain of function" research to develop hybrid viruses to test their ability to infect human lung cells and humanized mice. Is it just coincidental that SARS-CoV-2 appears to have emerged in late 2019 already adapted for transmission to humans and that the COVID-19 outbreak occurred not near those bat-infested caves in Southern China, but over a thousand miles north in the only Chinese city with a high-level virology institute that was experimenting with novel and diverse bat coronaviruses and hosting secret military animal pathogen research?

The Chinese government may have its reasons for wanting to avoid a full investigation into the origins of the pandemic, but foreign governments have no reason to play along. Yet that is exactly what ended up happening after 130 countries, including the United States and China, voted in the World Health Assembly to authorize a WHO-coordinated international investigation. Although investigations like these must always navigate big power politics, the weak terms of reference later negotiated between the WHO and China severely compromised the credibility of the process.

According to these terms, China was able to get veto power over any scientists included in the international investigation team, push the focus of the investigation on the response to the crisis rather than its origins, and place excessive limits requiring international investigators only review the work of their Chinese counterparts, not undertake an impartial investigation. The new revelations of secret Chinese People's Liberation Army research at the Wuhan Institute of Virology make these already flawed provisions untenable.

If the Chinese government feels the current WHO-led investigation has the potential to clear the necessary bar of scope and credibility, it now has a perfect opportunity to prove it. As a first step, it can immediately provide the WHO investigators presently in Wuhan a full account of all research carried out at the Wuhan Institute of Virology over the past five years, all laboratory notes and records, and a full list of all viruses currently or previously held along with their available sequenced genomes.

If the Chinese government fails to immediately change course, however, the Biden administration should bring allies and partners around the world together to demand an impartial and unrestricted international forensic investigation into the origins of COVID-19, with full access to all necessary records, databases, biological samples and key personnel.

Updating the terms of reference for the WHO investigation to make this type of process possible is clearly the best way forward, particularly because Chinese participation in the investigation is essential for gaining access to the most relevant information. The Chinese government should be invited to play a central role in the investigation and given every opportunity to present evidence, but only in support of a credible international forensic investigation with the unrestricted ability to do its job.

Should China fail to agree to update the terms of the WHO-led investigation, the Biden administration should work with partners across the globe to establish a parallel investigation relying on the collaboration of specialists around the world, the work of national intelligence services, transparent public hearings, generous whistleblower provisions and other means.

This type of international investigation would be far from perfect, particularly because so much of the essential evidence remains hidden in China, but it would be preferable to a structurally compromised investigation.

Getting to the bottom of how the pandemic began will be extremely difficult, but it is essential to address China's failures, as well as our own, at every level.

"This pandemic has been very severe," WHO emergencies chief Mike Ryan said last month. "It has affected every corner of this planet. But this is not necessarily the big one."

It's up to all of us to now do everything we can to be ready.

Jamie Metzl, a leading technology futurist and member of the World Health Organization's international advisory committee on human genome editing, is the Founder and Chair of OneShared.World. He is the author of five books, including "Hacking Darwin: Genetic Engineering and the Future of Humanity," and previously served on the US National Security Council and with the United Nations. @jamiemetzl.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.