China hits back as Biden steps up probe into origin of Covid virus

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President Joe Biden
President Joe Biden

China has accused the Biden administration of playing politics and shirking its responsibility in calling for a renewed investigation into the origins of the coronavirus pandemic that was first detected in China in late 2019.

Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said at a daily briefing on Tuesday that President Joe Biden’s order showed the US “does not care about facts and truth, nor is it interested in serious scientific origin tracing”.

Biden told US intelligence officials to redouble their efforts to investigate the origins of the pandemic, including any possibility the trail might lead to a Chinese laboratory.

After months of minimising that possibility as a fringe theory, the Biden administration is joining worldwide pressure on China to be more open about the outbreak, aiming to head off Republican complaints that the president has not been tough enough to press China on alleged obstruction.

Republicans, including former president Donald Trump, have promoted the theory that the virus emerged from a laboratory rather than naturally through human contact with an infected animal in Wuhan, China.

Zhao also said the US must open itself up to investigations into its biological laboratories, including at the military’s Fort Detrick base.

“The US side claims that it wants China to participate in a comprehensive, transparent, evidence-based international investigation,” Zhao said.

“We would like to ask the US side to do the same as China and immediately cooperate with the World Health Organisation on origin tracing research in a scientific manner.”

Biden on Wednesday asked US intelligence agencies to report back within 90 days. He directed US national laboratories to assist with the investigation and the intelligence community to prepare a list of specific queries for the Chinese government. He called on China to cooperate with international probes into the origins of the pandemic.

Republicans, including former President Donald Trump, have promoted the theory that the virus emerged from a laboratory accident rather than naturally through human contact with an infected animal at a traditional wet market in Wuhan.

Biden in a statement said the majority of the intelligence community had “coalesced” around those two scenarios but “do not believe there is sufficient information to assess one to be more likely than the other”. He revealed that two agencies lean toward the animal link and “one leans more toward” the lab theory, “each with low or moderate confidence”.

Prior to the president’s statement, his administration had sought to avoid public discussion of the lab leak theory while privately suggesting it was farfetched.

In another sign of shifting attitudes, the Senate approved two Wuhan lab-related amendments without opposition, attaching them to a largely unrelated bill to increase US investments in innovation.

Biden still held out the possibility that a firm conclusion may never be reached, given the Chinese government’s refusal to fully cooperate with international investigations.

“The failure to get our inspectors on the ground in those early months will always hamper any investigation into the origin of Covid-19,” he said.

Administration officials continue to harbour strong doubts about the lab leak theory, viewing China’s refusal to cooperate in the investigation more as emblematic of other irresponsible actions on the world stage.

Andy Slavitt, Biden’s senior adviser for the coronavirus, said on Tuesday that the world needs to “get to the bottom [of this] whatever the answer may be.”

“We need a completely transparent process from China; we need the WHO to assist in that matter,” Slavitt said. “We don’t feel like we have that now.”

Zhao said the administration’s position came in “in total disregard of facts and science, while totally ignoring the doubts over the origin-tracing work and failure of pandemic response in the US.”

“This fully shows that the US side does not care about facts and truth, nor is it interested in serious scientific origin tracing, but wants to use the epidemic to engage in stigmatisation and political manipulation, and to shirk responsibility,” Zhao said. “This is disrespectful to science and irresponsible to people’s lives, and moreover, it undermines the global unity of efforts to fight the epidemic.”

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