Editor’s Note: Peter Bergen is CNN’s national security analyst, a vice president at New America and a professor of practice at Arizona State University. He is the author of “The Cost of Chaos: The Trump Administration and the World.” The views expressed in this commentary are the author’s own. View more opinion on CNN.
The Chinese lab leak report from the Department of Energy saying it has “low confidence” that the Covid-19 virus accidentally escaped from a lab in Wuhan made headlines earlier this week.
Then on Tuesday, FBI Director Christopher Wray weighed in, telling Fox News that “the FBI has for quite some time now assessed that the origins of the pandemic are most likely a potential lab incident in Wuhan.”
On Wednesday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Mao Ning responded to that assessment, saying that the lab leak theory holds “no credibility at all.”
This all adds to the confusion surrounding the virus’s origins. There is considerable science pointing to animal-to-human transmission as the origin of the virus, but there is also credible reporting and the FBI director’s public assessment that it likely leaked from labs researching viruses in Wuhan.
And we may never truly know how the Covid-19 virus originated because the Chinese government didn’t allow international inspectors into Wuhan for weeks after a new mysterious, lethal virus first emerged there in December 2019.
Initially, the local Wuhan government downplayed the virus. That doesn’t necessarily mean they were covering up a lab leak, but rather this may point to simple incompetence – a pretty good explanation of most human activity. As CNN noted, “top-down bureaucracy and rigid procedures that were ill-equipped to deal with the emerging crisis” may have been to blame, a conclusion based on an examination of internal Chinese documents from the first months of the crisis.
By the time the central Chinese government got serious about the virus, it was already spreading worldwide.
While the new Department of Energy intelligence report does not settle the question of the precise origin of the virus, it does point us to the need for a bipartisan Covid-19 commission that goes well beyond US House investigations of Covid that are planned for this year.
Consider that almost as many Americans have died of Covid-19 already – some 1.1 million – as have died in every war since the American Revolution. If that isn’t a significant national security problem, I’m not sure what is.
And yet the United States hasn’t had any systematic examination by the government of how this happened. A good deal of that is likely because the whole issue of the pandemic is so politicized – but so too were the debates about whether the George W. Bush administration might have done a better job thwarting the 9/11 attacks.
The Bush administration initially blocked a commission to investigate 9/11. Following intense public pressure, the administration finally agreed to allow a commission to be formed more than a year after the attacks.
The 9/11 commission not only told the whole backstory of the attacks, but it also proposed lasting reforms that made Americans safer when they were implemented, such as the creation of a National Counterterrorism Center that coordinates all counterterrorism intelligence across the US government and the creation of a new Office of the Director of National Intelligence which coordinates the work of all of the US intelligence agencies.
A similar Covid-19 commission must be formed to investigate how the virus emerged, which responses to the virus worked or didn’t work as it spread across the United States and the lessons learned for how best to prepare for the next pandemic.
Each party should appoint subject matter experts on pandemics, epidemiology and emergency response to take part in this Covid-19 commission. It should have sufficient staff and money and subpoena power to investigate questions such as, “How did we get here?” And, “What can be done to mitigate the next pandemic?”
Of course, some questions may never be completely settled, like the lab leak theory vs. the natural transmission theory.
Still, there are pressing questions that the Covid-19 commission should address so that we are better prepared for the next pandemic, which will inevitably eventually happen.
Here are eleven questions that a Covid-19 commission could try and answer:
- Where did the coronavirus originate from?
- After 9/11, the US spent many billions of dollars preparing for a possible bioterrorism attack. Where did all that funding go and why were those defenses against bioterrorism not more helpful in responding to the pandemic?
- Why did the Trump administration eliminate the National Security Council’s pandemic unit in 2018? What effect did that have?
- An early decision by former President Donald Trump during the pandemic was to bar non-US citizens who had recently visited China from entering the US. What kind of effect did that have on mitigating the spread of the virus?
- Why didn’t the US government ensure there were enough medical-grade masks to cope with the pandemic when it started?
- Why was there so little federal leadership on containing the virus in the early months of the pandemic? Those decisions were primarily left to individual states. What effect did this uncoordinated response have?
- Trump said on February 26, 2020, that the number of Covid-19 cases would soon be close to zero. He also claimed that the coronavirus was no more dangerous than the flu. What effect did this have on the behavior of the American public and how did that behavior impact the spread of the virus?
- What role did right-wing media play in downplaying the pandemic and how did that affect sentiments among some Republicans that the coronavirus was being hyped?
- Dr. Deborah Birx, Trump’s coronavirus response coordinator, told a congressional committee in closed-door testimony in 2021 that “we probably could have decreased fatalities into the 30-percent-less to 40-percent-less range.” How did she come to that conclusion?
- To its credit, the Trump administration launched “Operation Warp Speed,” which saved many lives during the Covid-19 pandemic. As part of that effort, the US invested $2.5 billion in Moderna, which produced a testable vaccine on humans in only two months. Why did Operation Warp Speed work so well? And what are the lessons for future vaccine development?
- Covid-19 mortality rates per capita in the US are much higher than in other wealthy nations such as Canada, France, Germany and Japan. What went right in other countries that didn’t go right in the US?
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If we get some reasonable answers to these and other questions, the next pandemic that rolls around may not claim more than a million American lives.