Russia Says Keep Politics Out of COVID-19 Origin Probe as U.S., China Trade Accusations

As the United States and China accused one another of misleading the world on how and where the novel coronavirus first emerged, Russia has warned against bringing politics into the global effort to determine the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic.

"We oppose politicization of the current situation and presume that the WHO should play a central role in identifying causes of the pandemic," the Russian embassy in Washington said in a statement sent to Newsweek.

The remarks came as the dueling international narratives over the disease and its roots sparked overshadowed the World Health Organization's own probe.

Around the same time in March that the WHO released the preliminary results of a joint mission with China, which rejected the theory that COVID-19 may have leaked from a laboratory, President Joe Biden was briefed on the U.S. Intelligence Community's own assessment of the origins of the disease.

Late last month, the U.S. leader commissioned his spy agencies and national laboratories to pursue an investigation of that same subject to be concluded in 90 days.

So far, Biden has said that one element of the U.S. Intelligence Community leans toward a possible lab-leak hypothesis, while two others support an animal-to-human transfer explanation, and the findings of others remain inconclusive.

That news was met with outrage in Beijing, which dismissed the idea of a lab leak as a "conspiracy theory" in remarks recently sent to Newsweek by Beijing's embassy in Washington.

"Since the outbreak of COVID-19 last year, some political forces have been fixated on political manipulation and blame game," the statement said, "while ignoring their people's urgent need to fight the pandemic and the international demand for cooperation on this front, which has caused a tragic loss of many lives."

The embassy also shared its Russian counterpart's concerns about politics entering the scientific fray.

"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," the Chinese embassy's spokesperson said at the time. "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."

Russia, COVID-19, hospital, laboratory, Moscow
A medical worker wearing personal protective equipment (PPE) works at a laboratory in a temporary hospital for coronavirus patients set up at the Sokolniki Exhibition and Convention Center in Moscow on November 9, 2020. Since suffering an outbreak last year, Russia has experienced more than 5 million cases of COVID-19 and approximately 125,000 deaths. NATALIA KOLESNIKOVA/AFP/Getty Images

The need for international cooperation was also highlighted by the Russian embassy, not just in the interest of tracing the virus, but in fighting it as well.

"From the very beginning of the pandemic, Russia has been calling for joint efforts and focusing, above all, on combating global disaster together," Moscow's embassy in the U.S. told Newsweek. "We are interested in establishing an open and broad international cooperation in developing and improving medications that will help to take the coronavirus crisis under control. In particular, we call for greater coordination of actions while distributing immunization supplies."

Moscow is "determined to work closely on these issues on a bilateral as well as a multilateral basis," the embassy said, adding that the country was "ready to join the implementation of programs of international financial organizations, for example, the World Bank, aimed at supporting the vaccination of populations in the developing countries."

Russia was the first country in the world to approve an anti-COVID-19 vaccine, called the Sputnik V, which has since been approved for use by 65 countries and territories around the world. China, the U.S. and several other countries have since also registered domestically produced inoculations against the disease and, like Russia, have pledged to donate millions of vaccines across the world.

But even as countries focus on the international war on COVID-19, the WHO continues its investigation into the disease's origins. And while its initial joint WHO-China mission team all but ruled out a lab leak, Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus has since said more evidence was needed to completely discount the scenario, though he said it remained the "least likely" explanation.

In a statement sent to Newsweek, a WHO spokesperson referenced Tedros' comments, and said that "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."

"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."

A State Department spokesperson said the Biden administration "will continue pushing for a stronger, multilateral evaluation of the origins of the virus in China," which the U.S. would continue to press for answers.

"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-and," the spokesperson told Newsweek, "critically, to share information and lessons that will help us all prevent future catastrophic biological threats."

This was the necessity of the WHO's Phase 2 study, the spokesperson said, not "assigning blame."

Sputnik, V, vaccine, approved, 65, countries
A graphic published May 13 by the official website of Russia's Sputnik V shows the 65 countries and territories that have so far approved the vaccine for use in combating COVID-19 Gamaleya Research Institute of Epidemiology and Microbiology/Russian Direct Investment Fund

However, the U.S. has also shared doubts about the efforts of the WHO.

A senior administration official recently told Newsweek that Biden's team was "not putting all of our eggs in the WHO basket, and we are using the full resources of the U.S. government and the intelligence community to investigate the origins of the pandemic as well."

The official also claimed that China was withholding critical information.

"This virus originated in China and China has information that it has not shared with the global community about its origins," the senior administration official said, "and that is information that we all need access to in order to prevent the next pandemic."

Faced with protests from Beijing, the official said, "We are not going to allow Chinese obfuscation to dictate the work that we need to do to protect the public health of the American people."

As the Biden administration has given new life to the lab leak theory, Chinese officials have sought to bring attention to the presence of U.S. labs that have dealt with sensitive materials, including biological weapons, both domestically and abroad.

Such concerns regarding these facilities have been echoed in Russia as well. Armais Kamalov, a member of the Russian Academy of Sciences, told the state-run Tass Russian News Agency on Thursday that he supported strict regulations of such sites in a similar fashion to the way in which nuclear weapons are controlled.

"There are a lot of labs, which are bankrolled today by the United States Department of Defense," Kamalov said. "It's no secret that they are in Georgia, Armenia and other republics. It's surprising that access to such labs is off-limits, and we don't understand what they are doing there. We can only guess. That's why I believe that the development of genetically engineered viruses as biological weapons should be subject to the same worldwide ban as the testing of nuclear weapons."

The prospect that COVID-19 may be a man-made disease "is bound to be alarming," he said, and suggested that "the world community should take control of labs engaged in questionable biological research."