Editor’s Note: Lanhee J. Chen is a regular contributor for CNN Opinion. He is the David and Diane Steffy Fellow in American Public Policy Studies at the Hoover Institution and the director of Domestic Policy Studies in the Public Policy Program at Stanford University. Chen previously served as the policy director of the Romney-Ryan 2012 presidential campaign and senior adviser on Policy to the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC). The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN.
On Wednesday, President Joe Biden called for an inquiry by US intelligence agencies into the true origins of Covid-19. If this probe reveals new information, it could offer insight into the validity of the hotly-debated theory that SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes Covid-19, leaked from the Wuhan Institute of Virology in China.
The scientific research facility was known to have been conducting research on coronaviruses. The “lab leak” explanation, which was panned and dismissed by a number of analysts, gained new life after the Wall Street Journal reported on a previously undisclosed US intelligence report revealing that three researchers from the Wuhan lab became so sick with Covid-19-like symptoms in November 2019 – before official reports of the first outbreak – that they had to seek hospital care.
The true origins of Covid-19 remain a mystery – one complicated by the recent escalation of geopolitical tensions between the US and China. To be sure, Biden took an important step when he asked the US intelligence community to produce additional information, avenues of exploration and “specific questions for China” about the origins of Covid-19. But this, alone, is not enough if we want to uncover the truth.
The Biden administration should itself – separate and apart from the World Health Organization – lead a multilateral effort to investigate the origins of the virus. We should share our intelligence with other countries that are seeking answers, pool our collective knowledge about the origins of the virus and, together, place pressure on China to allow for access to the facilities and data that would help answer the remaining questions about the origins of Covid-19.
The lab leak theory has been judged by at least one US intelligence agency as the more likely explanation for Covid-19’s origins, while two agencies think the virus was more likely spread to humans from an infected animal. Biden noted that the existing intelligence assessments were of sufficiently low confidence that neither the lab leak theory nor the one that the virus emerged from natural causes could be ruled out. Earlier this month, eighteen scientists from major research universities around the world wrote a letter in a major scientific journal arguing that “hypotheses about both natural and laboratory spillovers” had to be seriously assessed and investigated in a transparent and independent manner.
An investigation into the true origins of the virus is essential not only for scientific reasons, but also because policymakers around the world need this knowledge to better prepare themselves for future pandemics. The World Health Organization is a multilateral body designed to promote public health around the globe and would be a natural candidate to lead an investigation into the origins of the virus. But the WHO and its current director-general, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, have a history of being too closely tied to China. Ghebreyesus was supported by China’s government when he sought leadership of the WHO and was quick to effusively praise Beijing’s early actions on the coronavirus when still little was known about it, how broadly it would spread and how deadly it would be. Third-party assessments of the WHO’s performance at the start of the pandemic have faulted the group for being too willing to placate China and, by extension, not quick enough to sound the alarm on the pandemic and its global impact.
It should be no surprise, then, that the WHO’s own investigation into the origins of Covid-19 concluded that a lab leak was probably not the cause of the pandemic and that infection from natural sources was more likely. But investigators were only permitted to examine research conducted by Chinese state scientists and did not have full access to the data or facilities that would have allowed them to assess whether the virus that causes Covid-19 may have been present before cases of the disease were first confirmed in China in December 2019.
American leaders have expressed their own doubts about both the transparency and independence of the investigation, intimating that China stood in the way of a full accounting. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan, for example, noted “deep concerns about the way in which the early findings of the COVID-19 investigation were communicated and questions about the process used to reach them.”
Beijing, for its part, considers the case closed and has argued that the attention should be turned to other countries for the role they may have played in the early days of the pandemic. In fact, China’s government has vigorously denied the lab leak theory, calling it “a conspiracy created by US intelligence agencies.”
In late March, the US joined with 13 other countries in calling on the WHO to conduct a “transparent and independent analysis and evaluation” of the pandemic, “free from interference and undue influence.” More specifically, the Biden administration is calling on the WHO to complete a second phase of its investigation in a way that allows “international experts the independence to fully assess the source of the virus and the early days of the outbreak.”
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Unfortunately, the Biden administration remains far too deferential to the WHO and places too much faith in the organization’s ability to manage an investigation that will be any more thorough or, more importantly, independent of the influence of China’s government.
While China may continue to stonewall an outside investigation, a US-led multilateral investigation can nonetheless get closer to the answers we seek about what happened during the early days of the pandemic. Perhaps most importantly, this effort can directly address the lab leak theory – something that Beijing has little interest in even exploring.
Biden has been eager to redouble our engagement and work together with America’s friends and allies around the world. Getting to the root cause of a pandemic that has already killed nearly 3.5 million people globally presents a golden opportunity to do just that.