Biden national security adviser Jake Sullivan criticized China for blocking data on the origins of COVID-19, but declined to stand by declassified U.S. intelligence released at the end of the Trump administration, and said coronavirus origin investigations still must be led by the World Health Organization.
China has done its utmost to thwart investigations into the origins of the virus. The Trump administration withdrew from the WHO in 2020, claiming the United Nations agency was incompetent and influenced by China, although the Biden administration rejoined. A WHO joint investigation with Chinese officials was conducted in January and February.
“I believe that we need to take a variety of steps to look at this — to look at the previous administration's response to the pandemic and what lessons we need to learn to make sure that never happens again,” Sullivan said in an interview with Margaret Brennan on Face the Nation on Sunday. “I also believe that we need a credible, open, transparent international investigation led by the World Health Organization. And they're about to come out with a report about the origins of the pandemic in Wuhan, China, that we have questions about, because we do not believe that China has made available sufficient original data into how this pandemic began to spread both in China and then eventually around the world. And we believe that both the WHO and China should step up on this matter.”
Earlier in February, WHO team leader Peter Ben Embarek said the possibility that the coronavirus may have escaped from the Wuhan Institute of Virology didn’t merit further inquiry. Days later, however, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus reversed that by saying more study was needed, and Embarek seemed to echo that in a follow-up press conference.
While in Wuhan, Embarek announced that the WHO considered four main hypotheses: direct transmission from an animal species to humans, transmission through an intermediate species, transmission through frozen foods, and a “laboratory-related incident.” He said a jump from an animal to another animal to humans was most likely and claimed an accidental release from a Wuhan lab was “extremely unlikely.”
Last week, Embarek confirmed there was “substantial circulation [of the coronavirus] already in December, particularly in the second half of December 2019 in Wuhan.” He also walked back the frozen foods theory in an interview, saying it wasn’t a possible coronavirus origin in Wuhan.
On Sunday, Sullivan was asked if he was suggesting the WHO was being manipulated by China, but he replied, “I’m not going to characterize it that way. What I am going to say is that the only way to have a scientifically-based investigation is to have access to all of the data.” Brennan asked if Biden directly called upon Chinese President Xi Jinping to make that data available during his call with him, and Sullivan said, “President Biden did raise the issue of COVID-19 and the need for all countries to shoulder responsibility, to take their own responsibility for helping protect the world, including China.”
Brennan pointed to the State Department releasing declassified U.S. intelligence in January, which contended a coronavirus-like illness was present in Wuhan in the fall of 2019 and that the Chinese military had secretly been conducting research at the Wuhan lab, and asked Sullivan if he disputed any of the declassified material. He dodged the question.
“This is why the WHO investigation has to be left to the scientists and the experts to lay out, without any interference by any government, because that's the only way we're going to know what the origins of this are,” Sullivan said. “I’m not in a position to say how COVID-19 came into this world. All I'm in a position to do is to call upon the WHO to do its job to the fullest extent possible.”
Trump’s spy chief, John Ratcliffe, laid out some of the intelligence on the coronavirus origins this month, saying, “The Chinese military ordered scientists at the Wuhan Institute of Virology to experiment with coronaviruses starting as far back as 2017. Some of those viruses were 96.2% genetically similar to the current COVID-19 virus, and further, some of those scientists working on the similar coronaviruses became sick with COVID-like symptoms in the fall of 2019.”
The Wuhan lab “has engaged in classified research, including laboratory animal experiments, on behalf of the Chinese military,” a State Department fact sheet contended.
Sullivan was asked if he stood by the declassified U.S. intelligence.
“No. I'm saying that I am not in a position, nor is the Biden administration in a position, to make a determination about precisely where COVID-19 originated,” Sullivan said. “And that's in part because there has not been sufficient transparency coming from the government of China, and the WHO still is has more work to do to get to the bottom of exactly where this virus emerged.”
Brennan pointed out that Trump deputy national security adviser Matthew Pottinger would say that dictatorships such as the one in China will never be transparent with health officials, so the U.S. intelligence community needs to take on a bigger role. Pottinger said in December 2020 that “there is a growing body of evidence to say that a laboratory leak or accident is very much a credible possibility” and dismissed the WHO inquiry as a “Potemkin exercise.”
“I think it is absolutely the case — and we've seen this in COVID-19 — that pandemic represents one of the most severe threats to American lives and livelihoods. And, therefore, our intelligence community should, across the board, be elevating its tools, its resources, its practices to focus on detecting, preventing, and responding to pandemics,” Sullivan said.
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