The Politics in Washington’s Wuhan “Lab-leak” Investigation

While intellectually Biden may not wish to blame China for Covid19, politically he needs to do so. Otherwise, he risks being blamed for letting China go again. Being ‘soft on China’ could easily allow Republicans to take back control of the Senate.

Nobody wants to be blamed for anything to do with Covid-19, least of all President Biden.

That is why President Biden has asked the US intelligence services to investigate Covid-19 ‘leaking from a laboratory’ and report within 90 days.

In doing so, Biden has tacitly rejected an authoritative study on the origins of Covid-19 recently conducted by international scientists for the World Health Organisation (WHO). The Joint WHO-China Study found that the most likely reason for the emergence of Covid-19 was zoonotic transfer from an animal species to humans. The least credible possibility was that the virus was manmade and escaped from a laboratory.

So why should Biden reject the word of international scientists? Because he felt forced to do so.

Although the US President is often described as being the most powerful man in the world, the reality is that he is controlled by his office. He can never be alone, monitored continuously by secret service agents; like presidents before him, he is always at risk of being shot.  His decisions are similarly shaped by circumstance, not self-determined. Being rational, President Biden no doubt accepts the view of most scientists that Covid-19, like all pandemics in history, is a product of nature, not of human malevolence.

To understand why President Biden rejected the WHO report, it is necessary to realise that he is controlled more by Republicans than by Democrats. The reason lies in history, history measured in months and in decades.

The first WHO report on Covid-19, based on a visit to Wuhan in February 2020, concluded that ‘China [had] rolled out perhaps the most ambitious, agile and aggressive disease containment effort in history’. This assessment was accepted by Washington until 7th April 2020 by which time deaths in the US due to Covid-19 had already reached 15,828. President Trump, under heavy criticism for his slow response to the pandemic, chose to turn on the WHO, saying that ‘They seem to err always on the side of China’. In deflecting blame in this way, President Trump was following the lead of multiple Republican senators who, in the preceding days, had appeared on Trump’s favourite TV station, Fox News.

The Daily Mail, a British tabloid known for its anti-Chinese sentiment, was perhaps the first to suggest that Covid-19 leaked from a laboratory. This was on 27th January 2020 when there were only 39 cases known outside China. By mid-February, Republican Congressman Tom Cotton was tweeting a second Daily Mail article citing ‘a new bombshell paper’ that merely observed that with two laboratories located in Wuhan, they could have been the source. President Trump and his trade adviser, Peter Navarro, then turned Covid-19 into a political weapon by accusing the Chinese government of ‘engineering the virus’. Trump’s Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, persisted in promoting the leak thesis claiming, just before leaving office, that he had evidence that ‘several researchers’ at the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) ‘became sick in autumn 2019’. State Department officials have subsequently said that the ‘fact sheet’ released by the US State Department at the time ‘highlighted only the data points that supported the conclusion Pompeo wanted’.

Staff members receive coronavirus strains for vaccine production delivered to the P3 laboratory of the contagious disease prevention and control institution of the China Center for Disease Control (CDC) from the Zhejiang provincial CDC, Feb. 25, 2020.(Photo/Xinhua)

President Biden assumed office needing to reassert the United States’ international status that Trump had done much to undermine. However, Biden was trapped by Trump’s powerful political rhetoric, always ‘putting American first’. Like previous Democratic presidents, Biden also had to play tough internationally for a second reason. It was necessary to placate opponents of his liberal domestic agenda and to hold together the coalition of interests necessary for the Democrats to retain control of Congress in the midterm elections in 2022. Thus constrained, Biden was bounced into anti-China rhetoric and actions by claims in the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) that China had withheld crucial data from WHO scientists on the origins of the pandemic. Although contested, these claims were subsequently amplified by The New York Times and the BBC.

Not in control of events, Biden found that the lab-leak hypothesis was being used successfully by Trump supporters to reunite a Republican Party that was still smarting from an electoral defeat that it would not accept. Mike Pompeo appeared repeatedly on Fox News reiterating his claims and, on 23rd February 2021, published an op-ed in the WSJ and its sister paper, The Australian. The WSJ twice carried a letter from international scientists, albeit one organised by a self-styled ‘geopolitics expert’, Jamie Metzl. Metzl is a Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council, a think-tank ‘that galvanizes US leadership and engagement in the world’. The letter criticised the Joint WHO-China report for downplaying the lab-leak hypothesis. On the day before the World Health Assembly was to consider the Joint WHO-China report, the WSJ also recycled the story of sickness at the Wuhan Institute of Virology. It added that the source of the article was US intelligence.

The major role played by news outlets owned by the Murdoch-run conglomerate, News Corp – such as Fox News and the WSJ – in promoting the lab-leak thesis may have been coincidental, but the importance of the US defence establishment is not. In fact, 9.4 per cent of US government expenditure is linked to defence compared to 5.4 percent in China. Once spending on defence and the military underpin the profitability of large corporations and support millions of jobs, keeping a credible adversary becomes paramount to justify continued investment. These tensions were evident when President Biden revealed disagreements within the US security services. Some, the ‘doves’, accepted the natural origin of Covid19. Others, the ‘hawks’, proposed a virus leak connected to military experiments.

Biden is also constrained by the long hand of history. China is about to celebrate the centenary of the Chinese Communist Party, but American politicians still ask themselves who was to blame for the ‘loss of China’ in 1949. China’s success since 1949 serves only to remind them that they were on the wrong side of history in supporting Chiang Kai-shek and the Kuomintang (KMT). While intellectually Biden may not wish to blame China for Covid19, politically he needs to do so. Otherwise, he risks being blamed for letting China go again. Being ‘soft on China’ could easily allow Republicans to take back control of the Senate.


The article reflects the author’s opinions, and not necessarily the views of China Focus.