Biden Demands China Share Info, Lessons That Could Stop Next 'Catastrophic Biological Threat'

President Joe Biden's administration is demanding China share potentially critical information regarding the origins of COVID-19 and lessons learned from its handling in order to stop the next global health threat.

As the World Health Organization probes the roots of the pandemic, the White House has commissioned its own investigation led by the U.S. Intelligence Community and backed by National Labs into how the disease first emerged in late 2019. The findings are expected by late August.

In announcing this 90-day inquiry last week, Biden said he had "specific questions for China."

Newsweek has since learned these questions included calls for Beijing to quit withholding key data that could potentially avoid upcoming disasters, and a call for the People's Republic to take greater part in a global effort to get to the bottom of how the ongoing pandemic began.

"Importantly, we will continue pushing for a stronger, multilateral evaluation of the origins of the virus in China," a State Department spokesperson told Newsweek.

"We need the PRC to participate in a full, transparent, evidence-based international study with the needed access to get to the bottom of a virus that's taken more than 3 million lives across the globe," the State Department spokesperson added, "and, critically, to share information and lessons that will help us all prevent future catastrophic biological threats."

Such an outcome, the State Department spokesperson emphasized, was the ultimate goal of the origin-tracing investigation not pointing fingers.

"Getting to bottom of the origin of this pandemic is not about assigning blame," the State Department spokesperson said, "it is about understanding how to prepare for the next pandemic, and the next one after that."

Nor was the necessity of getting to the next phase of the WHO's own probe "about assigning blame," according to the State Department spokesperson. This too "is about being better prepared to prevent future catastrophic biological threats."

China, Wuhan, city, Hubei, exhibition, COVID-19
A general view of the exhibition on China's fight against the COVID-19 epidemic at Culture Expo Center on October 15, 2020 in Wuhan, Hubei province China. The city and its surrounding region were once the epicenter of the novel coronavirus and where the disease was first detected, though it would become one of the first city's to recover as COVID-19 later ravaged the rest of the world. Getty Images

The results of the WHO's Phase 1 study were released in March—the same month Biden was briefed by the Intelligence Community on his spy agencies' own assessments on the matter—following a joint mission with China. The preliminary conclusion was that the virus was most likely transferred to humans from an animal, while the hypothesis that the disease came through the transportation of frozen food warranted further study and the theory that it leaked from a laboratory such as the Wuhan Institute of Virology was "extremely unlikely."

WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus later argued, however, that additional evidence was required to entirely rule out the lab leak scenario, a position conveyed by a WHO spokesperson, who recently told Newsweek "further studies will be needed in a range of areas, including on the early detection of cases and clusters, and the potential roles of animal markets, transmission via the food chain and the laboratory incident hypothesis."

No timetable has yet been established for the Phase 2 study, but the WHO spokesperson laid out the process.

"WHO is reviewing the recommendations from the virus origins studies report at the technical level," the WHO spokesperson said. "The technical teams will prepare a proposal for the next studies that will need to be carried out and will present that to the Director-General for his consideration. He will then work with member states on next steps."

COVID-19 was first detected in Wuhan, though no definitive evidence has yet linked the facility to the disease's worldwide spread.

Most experts had previously dismissed the prospect of a laboratory leak, and many still do, but the theory was given new life as Biden revealed last week that one element of the U.S. Intelligence Community so far supported it. Two others were in favor of the zoonotic transmission explanation, while the findings of the majority remained inconclusive.

Also at the center of the U.S. debate was Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases who helped lead the COVID-19 response under former President Donald Trump and was then appointed by Biden as his chief medical adviser. Fauci has acknowledged some past collaboration with Chinese scientists at the Wuhan Institute of Virology via funding for the U.S. nonprofit EcoHealth Alliance, but has stringently denied such work qualified as "gain of function" research that some contend could potentially result in the engineering of such a pathogen.

Fauci has said he always felt the greatest likelihood was that the disease was transferred to humans through contact with an animal, but has also supported efforts to other origin theories as well. On Friday, he was quoted by The Financial Times as calling on the Chinese government to release the medical records of nine citizens who allegedly fell ill, three of them workers at the Wuhan Institute of Virology in 2019 and six miners at the Mojiang mine in 2012, according to intelligence cited by The Wall Street Journal.

Beijing has reacted strongly to the revival of the lab leak theory and responded to Fauci's request during a press conference later that same day.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin pointed to a statement recently released by the Wuhan Institute of Virology in which the facility asserted that a "zero-infection" record was maintained among its staff, and pointed to the results of the joint WHO-China mission as authoritative in its dismissal of COVID-19 having leaked from the laboratory.

Wang also shone a light on what he said "are increasingly more reports on the virus and COVID-19 pandemic being spotted in various places around the world in the second half of 2019, and that the international community is highly concerned about the questions around the biological lab at Fort Detrick and the real intentions of the U.S.' establishment of 200-plus overseas bio-labs."

Fort Detrick has not responded to Newsweek's request for comment, though no evidence has yet emerged linking the Maryland military base that once served as a key node in the U.S. biological weapons program.

Still, Wang said it was on Washington to take action that could potentially help guard against future outbreaks.

"We hope the U.S. side will follow China's example, take a scientific and cooperative attitude, invite WHO experts for origin-tracing study in the U.S. and make a responsible explanation to the international community without further delay on the real situation of more than 200 U.S. biological laboratories around the world," Wang added, "so as to make positive contribution to humanity's early victory over the pandemic and better capabilities in dealing with public health emergencies in the future."

Xi, Jinping, Joe, Biden, meeting, Los, Angeles
Then U.S. Vice President Joe Biden (R) speaks as visiting then-Chinese Vice President Xi Jingping (L) looks on during a meeting of governors in Los Angeles, on February 17, 2012 in California. U.S.-China ties have suffered greatly as both men to rose to the top offices of their respective countries and especially so over the past year as former President Donald Trump cast blame on China for the COVID-19 pandemic. FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP/Getty Images

The U.S. has so far rebuffed China's countercampaign when it comes to the origins of COVID-19.

A senior administration official recently told Newsweek that the White House was "not going to allow Chinese obfuscation to dictate the work that we need to do to protect the public health of the American people."

"At the end of the day, this does come back to this virus originated in China," the senior administration official said, "and China has information that it has not shared with the global community about its origins, and that is information that we all need access to in order to prevent the next pandemic."

And in response to the U.S. efforts, China has only intensified its denials as well its own calls for international efforts to investigate the origins of COVID-19 to avoid future pandemics. Such a probe, however, had to be conducted free of political pressure, Chinese officials argued, in spite of the stark deterioration in ties between leading powers Beijing and Washington.

"On the origin tracing of COVID-19, we have been calling for international cooperation on the basis of respecting facts and science, with a view to better coping with unexpected epidemics in the future," China's embassy in Washington said in a statement recently sent to Newsweek. "To politicize origin tracing, a matter of science, will not only make it hard to find the origin of the virus, but give free rein to the 'political virus' and seriously hamper international cooperation on the pandemic."

And any probe would also have to include U.S. facilities dealing in sensitive research, the Chinese embassy said.

"Out of a sense of responsibility towards the health of mankind, we support a comprehensive study of all early cases of COVID-19 found worldwide and a thorough investigation into some secretive bases and biological laboratories all over the world," the Chinese embassy said. "Such study and investigation shall be full, transparent and evidence-based, and shall get to the bottom to make everything clear."