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Why Is China Blocking a WHO Delegation From Visiting Wuhan?
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Why Is China Blocking a WHO Delegation From Visiting Wuhan?

It might be time to revisit the lab-leak theory.

Earlier this week, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) blocked a World Health Organization (WHO) delegation from visiting the city of Wuhan. The WHO team is tasked with investigating the origins of the novel coronavirus that has altered life as we know it. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the WHO director, called on Beijing to allow his team into China. “I’m very disappointed with this news, given that two members have already begun their journeys, and others were not able to travel at the last minute,” he said, adding that their “mission is a priority for [the] WHO.”

The WHO has been rightly criticized for its cozy ties to the CCP. But the organization’s decision to criticize the Chinese for blocking its investigation is a stark reminder of a troubling fact. We still don’t know how this pandemic began. 

There are at least two layers to the COVID-19 origin story. One is scientific. The other is political. They aren’t mutually exclusive, but each has distinctive elements.

Let’s begin with the science and a basic disclaimer: I’m no virologist, so I’m not qualified to inspect or comment on the genome of coronaviruses. The scientific consensus is that the virus that causes COVID-19 wasn’t genetically modified. I’m not a fan of arguing from consensus, because it can introduce logical fallacies. (And, in my experience, the conventional wisdom is often wrong.) But scientists with knowledge of the coronavirus generally agree that it isn’t the work of humans. 

The Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) referenced this consensus in an April 30, 2020, statement. The U.S. intelligence community “concurs with the wide scientific consensus that the COVID-19 virus was not manmade or genetically modified,” the ODNI said. But the ODNI’s assessment contained a wrinkle: America’s spies couldn’t rule out that the possibility that COVID-19 began “as the result of an accident at a laboratory in Wuhan,” as opposed to accidental “contact with infected animals” at a wet market, or elsewhere.

The lab leak theory has been somewhat controversial—mainly due to the politics involved—but it still hasn’t been ruled out conclusively. And just days before the WHO’s team was denied entry into China, Matthew Pottinger, who just resigned as President Trump’s deputy national security adviser, raised the theory once again. “There is a growing body of evidence to say a laboratory leak or accident is very much a credible possibility,” Pottinger said. “Even establishment figures in Beijing have openly dismissed the wet market story.”

Pottinger and other Trump administration officials have inquired about the “lab leak” theory for months. And on April 30 of last year—the same day the ODNI issued its statement—the New York Times published a report alleging that some Trump officials were pressing “American spy agencies to hunt for evidence to support an unsubstantiated theory that a government laboratory in Wuhan, China, was the origin of the coronavirus outbreak.” The Times’ report was sourced to anonymous “current and former American officials,” but a careful reading shows that some in Langley probably weren’t happy with the White House’s line of questioning. The subtext of the Times’ account was that these same Trump officials were pushing the theory as part of the administration’s effort to get tough on China. One of the administration officials named by disgruntled intel sources: Matthew Pottinger. 

Which makes it noteworthy that Pottinger returned to the claim just this week. I don’t know Pottinger personally. But he seems to be levelheaded—not a fire-breathing Trumpist. And the coordinated leak to the Times obviously has not dissuaded him from pursuing the lab leak theory in the months since. Therefore, I’d like to know what’s in the “growing body of evidence” Pottinger cites. If there is a strong, evidence-based case to be made, ten the American public deserves to see it. 

It just so happens that New York magazine published a lengthy investigation into the lab leak hypothesis on Monday. The author, Nicholson Baker, isn’t a virologist either. And his essay, though brilliantly written, is mostly circumstantial and speculative. Still, one gets the sense that Baker is correct in at least this regard: The lab leak hypothesis “isn’t a conspiracy theory,” as some have sneered. “It’s just a theory. It merits attention, I believe alongside other reasoned attempts to explain the source of our current catastrophe,” Baker writes. He postulates a scenario in which COVID-19 originated with bat guano in a mine in China, but scientists increased its transmissibility through experimentation, leading to the current crisis. The factual background of Baker’s piece is illuminating and spooky. An entire industry has been experimenting with similar viruses in the name of containing them. But Baker, and others, suspect that scientists in Wuhan unwittingly unleashed the same type of disease they had hoped to stop.  

Which brings us to the political dimensions of COVID-19’s origins. There is no question that the Trump administration attempted, often in an uneven, clumsy fashion, to hold the CCP accountable for COVID-19, at least rhetorically. Was it wrong to do so, as the Times’anonymous sources seemed to think last year? I don’t think so. As the events of this past week show, the CCP is still preventing a full investigation into COVID-19’s origins more than one year after it was first detected. Early whistleblowers in China have been detained and harassed. And the CCP continues to lash out at anyone who calls for an independent inquiry. Indeed, the CCP escalated its trade war with Australia, in part, because Canberra thinks such an investigation is necessary. 

The CCP’s current behavior only underscores the need for transparency. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying blasted Pottinger during a press conference Monday. Hua accused Pottinger of spreading “shoddy lies” and then quickly pivoted to one of the CCP’s favorite claims: American labs are spreading viruses around the world, not Chinese labs. Beijing and the Kremlin have been spreading disinformation along those lines throughout the pandemic. Perhaps Beijing is protesting too much.

In less than two weeks, it will be left to the Biden administration to determine whether it wants to continue to pursue the origin of COVID-19. It should, despite the fact that we may never really get a good answer. Besides what it says about the CCP’s role, the origin of COVID-19 may have important ramifications for the types of lab work being done around the globe. Read Baker’s piece for New York magazine carefully. Scientists have been engaged in potentially high-risk experiments on viruses for some time. That work—whether it is in China or the U.S.—deserves additional scrutiny. That is, the mysterious origin of COVID-19 continues to be important both from a scientific and a political perspective.  

Tom Joscelyn is a senior fellow at Just Security.