The US is letting China off the hook over its COVID-19 coverup

The US is letting China off the hook over its COVID-19 coverup
A medical worker takes a swab from a previously recovered COVID-19 coronavirus patient in Wuhan, China on March 14, 2020. © Getty

By Brahma Chellaney, The Hill

America’s death toll from the COVID-19 pandemic, now in its third year, is closing in on one million, with Americans continuing to succumb to the disease at internationally high rates. Both in total case counts and number of deaths since 2020, the United States has led the world. New data show that Americans’ life expectancy in the first year of the pandemic fell 1.8 years — the sharpest decline since at least World War II.

Given the extent of its pain and suffering, the U.S. should have a major stake in unraveling how the COVID-19 virus originated. Knowing the origins of this virus has become imperative to forestall the fourth coronavirus pandemic of the 21 Century after SARS, MERS and COVID-19.

In this light, isn’t it odd that the U.S. government is no longer seeking to get to the bottom of how the virus first emerged in the central Chinese city of Wuhan? In fact, by relieving pressure on China to come clean on the virus’s origins, President Biden’s administration is effectively letting that communist behemoth off the hook despite the costliest government coverup perhaps of all time. 

Chinese President Xi Jinping’s regime censored all news about the initial spread of COVID-19, including hiding evidence of human-to-human transmission, resulting in a local outbreak morphing into a global health calamity. Even today, by covering up the truth on how the virus emerged, Xi’s regime disrespects the memory of the more than 5.7 million people who have died thus far. The only probe China has allowed was a 2021 “joint study” with the World Health Organization (WHO) that it controlled and steered.

Because of Beijing’s stonewalling of investigations, the world still does not know whether COVID-19 evolved naturally from wildlife or was triggered by the accidental escape of a genetically engineered coronavirus from a lab in Wuhan, the center of Chinese research on super-viruses. Xi’s regime has frustrated all efforts, including by the WHO, to conduct an independent forensic inquiry into the Wuhan labs, labeling such an audit “origin-tracing terrorism.” 

The only concession Xi has made is that last September, after the pandemic had already devastated much of the world, he ordered enhanced oversight of Chinese labs handling lethal viruses. 

Against this background, China has been comforted by Biden’s easing of pressure on it. Soon after Kabul fell to the Taliban last August, marking America’s humiliating defeat at the hands of terrorists, a weakened Biden appeared to bow to the Chinese demand that the U.S. stop investigating the virus’s origins by not extending the 90-day term of the intelligence inquiry that he had instituted, despite the probe failing to reach a definitive conclusion. 

Since then, Biden has avoided any reference to the pandemic’s origins. And after having prematurely proclaimed on the Fourth of July that “we’re closer than ever to declaring our independence from a deadly virus,” Biden is now preparing Americans for the “new normal” of living with COVID-19, not conquering it.

Biden’s first misstep occurred just after his inauguration as the 46th president when he announced America’s immediate rejoining of the WHO. He could have leveraged his predecessor’s withdrawal from the WHO to make that international organization take steps to separate itself from the malign influence of China before formalizing America’s reentry.

The WHO led by Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus was complicit in China’s coverup. Indeed, it made important concessions to Beijing that may have compromised the search for the virus’s origins. So, America’s unconditional return to the WHO did little more than advertise U.S. weakness and harden Xi’s intransigence.

Then, on Jan. 26, 2021, Biden signed a presidential memorandum that ordered federal agencies to stop referring to the virus by the “geographic location of its origin,” saying that such references contribute to “racism.” So, as a matter of official U.S. policy, the virus could no more be linked to China.

Consequently, official U.S. reports, including the last annual unclassified intelligence report on threats to America, stopped mentioning the virus’s Wuhan origin. Yet, oddly, it has been okay to refer to the virus’s variants by their geographic origins or even slap on a racially tinged travel ban, as Biden did with eight southern Africa countries for five weeks after the omicron variant emerged. 

More recently, the Biden administration’s inexplicable decision not to field a candidate against Tedros left his bid unopposed for a second five-year term as the WHO chief. Indeed, France, Germany and 15 other European Union countries, with possible U.S. acquiescence, took the lead in nominating Tedros for a second term, even as his home country of Ethiopia denounced him. 

Here’s the paradox: Further undermining the WHO’s credibility, Tedros attended the Beijing Winter Olympics, despite a U.S.-led diplomatic boycott, and heaped renewed praise on China’s COVID-19 handling. In fact, Tedros carried the Olympic torch in a relay that also prominently featured another torchbearer, a Chinese military officer who led the ambush killing of 20 Indian troops in June 2020 and who, in gross violation of the Olympic spirit, is now being feted by China as a national hero. Yet, thanks to Western support, Tedros’s reelection in May has become a mere formality.

To Biden’s credit, last May he helped end the long suppression of an open debate on a possible lab leak by calling that hypothesis one of “two likely scenarios” on how the pandemic originated. Until then, the hypothesis was treated as a pure conspiracy theory by major U.S. news organizationssocial-media giants and some influential scientists who hid their conflicts of interest. Facebook and Instagram even suspended accounts that repeatedly referred to the virus’s possible escape from a lab.

The concerted effort to obscure the truth also extended to U.S. scientific and bureaucratic institutions, largely because U.S. government agencies – from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to USAID – funded dangerous research on coronaviruses at the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) from 2014 to 2020. The long suppression of a debate only aided China’s designs, including giving it sufficient time to conceivably eliminate any incriminating evidence of its negligence or complicity in the worst disaster of our time.  

One key question remains unanswered: Why were official U.S. agencies funding research on viruses at the WIV, which, according to the U.S. government’s own admission, was linked to the Chinese military? A January 2021 State Department fact sheet raised concern over “whether any of our research funding was diverted to secret Chinese military projects at the WIV.” But why did the funding proceed despite that risk?

It appears likely that Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, and his then-boss, Francis Collins, former director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), began funding risky experiments at the WIV so as to circumvent the restrictions in the U.S. on “gain of function” research — or altering the genetic make-up of pathogens to enhance their virulence or infectiousness. The NIH money was routed through the New York-based EcoHealth Alliance, whose largest source of funds is the Pentagon. The Pentagon has yet to unequivocally deny that any of the almost $39 million it gave to EcoHealth Alliance ended up in Wuhan. 

The NIH, for its part, has sought to obfuscate its role by scrubbing its website of the “gain of function” definition.

The Beijing Winter Olympics, meanwhile, symbolize an ascendant China that is too powerful to be punished for its COVID-19 coverup, its genocide in Xinjiang and its expansionism across Asia.

Relieving U.S. pressure on China is clearly a mistake. The Biden White House would do well to rebuild pressure on Beijing by lifting the veil on the precise role the U.S. played in supporting WIV research on increasing the transmissivity of bat coronaviruses to human cells. For starters, the U.S. should disclose the full extent of its WIV funding. America’s own transparency is essential for credible pressure on an opaque China.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and the author of nine books, including the award-winning “Water: Asia’s New Battleground” (Georgetown University Press).