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Reviving Lab Leak Theory, Biden Calls for COVID-19 Inquiry

U.S. President Joe Biden has given the intelligence community 90 days to come up with more information surrounding the origins of COVID-19.

By , the newsletter writer at Foreign Policy.
U.S. President Joe Biden answers questions from the press.
U.S. President Joe Biden answers questions from members of the press before departing from the White House in Washington on May 25. Win McNamee/Getty Images

Here is today’s Foreign Policy brief: U.S. President Joe Biden calls for a COVID-19 investigation, Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko accuses the West of waging a “hybrid war,” and Biden is set to name new India and China ambassadors. 

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Biden Calls for COVID-19 Origins Inquiry

U.S. President Joe Biden has ordered U.S. intelligence agencies to conduct an inquiry into the origins of COVID-19, following calls for deeper study and news reports that have given backing to the theory the virus may have leaked from a Wuhan laboratory. Biden has asked for agencies to report back within 90 days.

In a statement on Wednesday, Biden said the U.S. intelligence community is focused on two hypotheses of the virus’s origin: animal to human transmission or a laboratory accident.

Biden’s comments reflected the lack of certainty and knowledge that still surrounds the quest to get to the bottom of the outbreak. “While two elements in the [intelligence community] leans toward the former scenario and one leans more toward the latter—each with low or moderate confidence—the majority of elements do not believe there is sufficient information to assess one to be more likely than the other,” Biden said. Biden did not say which elements contributed to the 18 U.S. intelligence agencies analysis.

New evidence? The calls for an inquiry have been fueled by a recent Wall Street Journal report citing a previously undisclosed U.S. intelligence report saying several lab workers at the Wuhan Institute of Virology fell ill and visited a hospital weeks before China recorded its first COVID-19 case. The Wall Street Journal’s report qualified the information with some important caveats: It’s not uncommon to receive medical care at hospitals in China due to poor primary care facilities, and the illnesses came at the height of cold and flu season.

WHO discord. Nonetheless, the report has added new fuel to claims of a Chinese cover-up and comes off the back of calls from 18 scientists in a letter published in the journal Science for an assessment of the virus’s origins that goes deeper than one by a World Health Organization investigative team, which found no clear proof of either animal transmission or a lab leak.

It follows WHO Chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus’s criticism of the investigative team’s report, which appeared to dismiss the lab leak theory. “Although the team has concluded that a laboratory leak is the least likely hypothesis, this requires further investigation,” Tedros said in a statement.

Searching in the dark. As Foreign Policy’s James Palmer observed in FP’s weekly China Brief newsletter, any international inquiry is unlikely to go anywhere. “Calls for an independent, open investigation on the origins of the pandemic are fantasies. Even if the Wuhan authorities had a smoking gun, Beijing would stonewall any outside investigators—out of instinct and because of the official lies by local and likely national authorities about the extent and virulence of the initial outbreak,” Palmer wrote.

That former U.S. President Donald Trump was unable to unearth hard evidence of a Chinese cover-up despite having every incentive to do so makes the likelihood that new evidence will be found even more remote. Reporter Aaron Blake summed up that line of reasoning in the Washington Post on Monday: “Given how the Trump administration handled intelligence, there is very little doubt that, if some kind of proof had existed, Trump would have pushed hard for its release. Trump could have done so whenever he wanted. It never happened.”

Open for debate. Although U.S. intelligence agencies consulted their sources, the theory is now open for debate on the world’s largest social media platform. “In light of ongoing investigations into the origin of COVID-19 and in consultation with public health experts, we will no longer remove the claim that COVID-19 is man-made from our apps,” a Facebook representative said on Wednesday.


What We’re Following Today

Lukashenko defiant. Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko accused the West of waging a “hybrid war” against him in his first public remarks since the forced diversion of a Ryanair flight to arrest a dissident journalist sparked international condemnation. Without giving details, Lukashenko said detained journalist Roman Protasevich had been planning a “bloody rebellion” in remarks before Belarus’s parliament. Faced with growing isolation from his Western neighbors, Lukashenko is set to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin for a “working lunch” on Friday, according to Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov.

Mali’s turmoil. Malian interim President Bah Ndaw and Malian Prime Minister Moctar Ouane resigned on Wednesday, days after they were arrested by the military following a cabinet reshuffle. Malian Vice President Assimi Goita, a colonel who led the coup against Mali’s government in August 2020, has assumed power following the purge. Goita has maintained elections will still go ahead next year as planned, and negotiations for the release of the transitional leaders are ongoing. The U.N. Security Council “strongly condemned” the move in a joint statement on Wednesday, adding to French President Emmanuel Macrons denunciation of a “coup within a coup.”

Macron in Rwanda. Macron visits Rwanda today as the two countries attempt to mend ties following the publication of reports on Rwandas 1994 genocide that laid differing levels of responsibility on French officials for abetting the mass killing. In Foreign Policys Africa Brief, Lynsey Chutel previewed the trip, which includes a stop in South Africa, and outlined what Macrons goals are on the African continent.

Oil giants under pressure. Oil giants ExxonMobil and Royal Dutch Shell were both dealt blows on Wednesday that could have a major impact on their business models and the fight against climate change. On Wednesday, a Dutch court ruled in favor of an environmental group that argued Shell’s oil extraction operations infringed on human rights, saying the company needed to lower its carbon emissions at a much faster rate than it had planned. For ExxonMobil, the conflict is internal as activist investors, backed by financial giant BlackRock, succeeded in electing at least two new directors to its board. The new additions are likely to push for ExxonMobil to take a more serious look at its energy transition policy, including investments in carbon capture technology. 


Keep an Eye On

New U.S. ambassadors. Biden has reportedly decided on two key ambassadorial positions as he begins the process of staffing embassies around the world. R. Nicholas Burns, a former senior State Department official in the Obama administration, is expected to be named ambassador to China while Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti is set to be appointed ambassador to India. Both positions are pending Senate approval and follow the reported but yet to be announced picks of former Deputy Secretary of State Thomas Nides as ambassador to Israel and former Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel as ambassador to Japan.

Biden speaks out on Tigray. Biden called for an end to “large-scale abuses” in Tigray as international pressure builds on Ethiopia and Eritrea due to their actions in the months-long conflict. Biden urged a cease-fire, the withdrawal of Eritrean forces, and “immediate, unimpeded humanitarian access to the region in order to prevent widespread famine.”

The strong words follow restrictions on U.S. economic and security assistance to Ethiopia as well as visa constraints on those “responsible for, or complicit in, undermining resolution of the crisis in Tigray,” the U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a statement. Ethiopia has denounced U.S. restrictions, accusing the United States of meddling in its internal affairs.


Odds and Ends

Ecuadorian authorities have confirmed a giant tortoise found two years ago on the Galápagos Islands is a member of a species thought to have died out a century ago. Galápagos National Park officials determined the tortoise was a Chelonoidis phantasticus with the help of DNA testing from Yale University scientists. The last time such an animal was seen was in 1906, when a California Academy of Sciences expedition found (and subsequently killed) a male specimen. Galápagos park officials are now mounting an expedition to Fernandina Island—where the species originates—to search for more tortoises in an attempt to save the species from extinction.

Colm Quinn is the newsletter writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @colmfquinn