The Biden administration announced that “experts” from a range of federal agencies and scientific fields would review the controversial WHO-China report on COVID-19’s origins as the Biden team continues expressing its “ongoing concerns” about how the study was conducted.
Trump and Biden officials have said the Chinese government worked to thwart investigations into the origins of the virus, which has killed 2.78 million people worldwide, and both administrations have cast doubt on the manner in which the joint WHO-China study had been conducted in early 2021.
Biden press secretary Jen Psaki said Monday the embargoed report was “in the hands of U.S. government experts” from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Food and Drug Administration, the National Institutes of Health, the Department of Health and Human Services, the Department of Agriculture, the Department of Homeland Security, and the U.S. Agency for International Development.
“Seventeen experts, long-standing leaders in the field, including epidemiology, public health, clinical medicine, veterinary medicine, infectious disease, law, food security, biosafety, biosecurity — we have a lot of experts in government — will be reviewing this report intensively and quickly, and we have some of our best people in government focused on reviewing it right now,” Psaki said.
Psaki added: “We are also communicating closely with our partners and allies around the world to share our ongoing concerns — which we have stated in the past, of course, about the process and our scientific analysis of the report itself once these individuals have concluded their review. … We have been clear that an independent, technically sound investigation is what our focus is on, and once this is reviewed, we’ll have an assessment about the steps forward.”
Multiple outlets, including the Associated Press, obtained draft copies of the WHO-China study on Monday, which reportedly concluded that a Wuhan lab leak was “extremely unlikely.” The report said a jump from bats to another animal to humans was most likely, and the outlet said the WHO team proposed more studies into each area but the lab leak hypothesis.
During a press briefing earlier in the day, White House medical adviser Dr. Anthony Fauci, CDC Director Rochelle Walensky, and White House Senior Adviser for COVID Response Andy Slavitt all said they wanted to review the report before saying whether they had faith in its conclusions.
“I’d like to see that report first, and I also would like to inquire as to the extent to which the people who were on that group had access directly to the data that they would need to make a determination,” Fauci said. “Once I get that information, I’ll be able to more adequately answer whether I trust it or not.”
Dr. Robert Redfield, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention under former President Donald Trump, said COVID-19 likely originated through an accidental escape from the Wuhan lab and suggested this occurred following gain-of-function research there.
“I am of the point of view that I still think the most likely etiology of this pathology in Wuhan was from a laboratory. Escaped,” Redfield said during a CNN interview last week, adding that “it’s not unusual for respiratory pathogens that are being worked on in a laboratory to infect the laboratory worker.”
Peter Daszak, the leader of the EcoHealth Alliance, which steered at least $600,000 in NIH funding to the Wuhan Institute of Virology for bat virus research, has defended China’s coronavirus response and previously criticized the Biden administration for being skeptical of the WHO-China report. He dismissed the lab leak theory during a 60 Minutes appearance on Sunday and admitted the investigative team had essentially taken the word of the Chinese lab workers who denied the coronavirus escaped from there.
Wuhan lab researchers “conducted experiments involving RaTG13, the bat coronavirus identified by the WIV in January 2020 as its closest sample to SARS-CoV-2 (96.2% similar),” a State Department fact sheet released in mid-January contended, adding that the lab “has a published record of conducting ‘gain-of-function’ research to engineer chimeric viruses.”
“The U.S. government has reason to believe that several researchers inside the WIV became sick in autumn 2019, before the first identified case of the outbreak, with symptoms consistent with both COVID-19 and common seasonal illnesses,” the State Department fact sheet read, claiming that the Wuhan lab “has engaged in classified research, including laboratory animal experiments, on behalf of the Chinese military since at least 2017.”
Former Trump officials, including deputy national security adviser Matt Pottinger, former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and former Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe have all pointed to circumstantial evidence that COVID-19 may have originated at the Wuhan lab.
Over the weekend, WHO-Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said that “all hypotheses are on the table and warrant complete and further studies from what I have seen so far.” On Monday, he said the report will be shared with member states Tuesday when there will be a briefing by the WHO investigative team.
“There’s a report coming out shortly by the World Health Organization — we’ve got real concerns about the methodology and the process that went into that report, including the fact that the government in Beijing apparently helped to write it — but let’s see what comes out in that report,” Blinken said.
Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Zhao Lijian said on Monday that “we never accept the groundless accusations and wanton denigration on the epidemic issue by the U.S. side.”
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