Is the U.S. Tough Enough on China and the Origins of COVID?

It has been nearly three weeks since president Joe Biden called on the U.S. intelligence community to produce a report on the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic, stating the country would "press China to participate" in a full investigation.

The question of where exactly the virus came from has remained unanswered despite a World Health Organization (WHO) probe earlier this year that many countries claimed "lacked access to complete, original data" in a joint statement.

Calls for further investigation into the pandemic's origins have been met with concern by some—notably Anthony Fauci, the U.S.' top infectious disease expert, who has warned against taking an accusatory stance.

In an interview with MSNBC on June 3, Fauci said there was "a lot of pointing of fingers" and added: "Obviously you want openness and cooperation. One of the ways you can get it, is don't be accusatory. Try to get both a forensic, a scientific, and an investigational approach. I think the accusatory part about it is only going to get them to pull back even more."

Fauci has been criticized by David Asher, former head of the State Department's COVID-19 origins investigation, who has voiced frustration at what he sees as a lack of interest on the part of the National Institutes of Health in pursuing the lab-leak COVID origin theory, according to the Financial Times.

Experts in global health and national security have told Newsweek that cooperation is the best way forward; others have criticized what they called a lack of transparency on China's part.

Bruce Jones, director and a senior fellow in the Project on International Order and Strategy of the Foreign Policy program at the Brookings Institution, thinks the U.S. has broadly struck the right balance on its stance toward China so far—a nation he said has "gone out of its way to alienate" other countries.

He told Newsweek: "Biden is right to look hard into this. It doesn't matter much to the ongoing handling of COVID-19, but it matters a great deal to preventing the next epidemic outbreak.

"There's not a lot of cooperation with China on COVID-19 right now in any case. Because it emanated from inside China's borders, Beijing has from the outset taken a very truculent approach to cooperation on this issue.

"There were fundamental failures of transparency at the very onset. Those don't excuse the major mistakes of the Trump administration, but they certainly weakened the initial global response."

On the other hand, Jones noted China has also "done some useful things as well" such as providing vaccines to other nations.

Dr. Amesh Adalja, Senior Scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, also agreed with Biden's call for further investigation.

Pointing to a potential animal origin, Adalja said determining whether or not this is the case would help humans change the way we interact with that animal. He said it would also be important to learn if there was a lab leak because "we should all be able to learn from any type of safety mishap that may have occurred."

He told Newsweek: "The norm with biosafety should be transparency so that everyone can learn from each other's mistakes and improve biosafety in labs."

He added that "obfuscation, curtailing the freedom of the press, and concocting stories about U.S. origins is not conducive to diplomacy" and highlighted China's ongoing tensions with Taiwan.

Coronavirus disinfection
Firefighters disinfect the Wuhan Tianhe International Airport in Wuhan, China, April 3 2020. Joe Biden has called for a report into the origins of COVID-19. Getty / Stringer

Amanda Glassman, executive vice president and senior fellow at the Washington-based Center for Global Development think tank, stressed the importance of putting political differences aside.

She said the U.S. has "few credible threats to force investigations or other actions" on China and that creating incentives for cooperation and disclosure "is the only way forward."

She added: "The future of global health security depends on how well every country in the world collects and publishes accurate data on disease and death, assures adequate safety in laboratories, and quickly detects and contains dangerous pathogens.

"Political adversaries must find ways to cooperate, as friends-only approaches will inevitably fail—pathogens spread across borders, and then come back home to roost. The recent lockdown in Guangzhou is evidence enough.

"Many Chinese scientists are committed to rigor and are leading thinkers in their fields. Building ways to support their independent research and inquiry can help, as can scientific meetings, peer review and research consortia across countries as ways to generate more of these virtuous incentives for scientists to strive for accuracy everywhere. Competition can be reserved for the market and conflict for military matters."

Biden has called for the U.S. intelligence report on the origins of COVID-19 to arrive around August 24.

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