WASHINGTON — Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra said Tuesday that there must be a “transparent” follow-up probe into the origins of the coronavirus pandemic, pressing the Biden administration's policy that there must be further investigation.
Becerra told an annual ministerial meeting of the World Health Organization in recorded remarks that officials must do more to understand the current pandemic and prepare for “future biological threats.”
The new phase of the investigation into the pandemic's beginnings "must be launched with terms of reference that are transparent, science-based, and give international experts the independence to fully assess the source of the virus and the early days of the outbreak,” he said.
His comments come after a U.S. intelligence report said three lab workers in Wuhan, China, fell ill in November 2019, before the first coronavirus cases were reported, adding to circumstantial evidence for a hypothesis that the virus could have escaped from a lab in the city.
That evidence is far from conclusive, however. Scientists and public health experts have said since last year that the virus likely emerged after being contracted from an animal, a common occurrence in nature. Some, however, wondered if the virus somehow escaped from a lab in Wuhan.
President Joe Biden said in a statement Wednesday that he has asked the U.S. intelligence community to redouble their efforts to investigate how the disease began so that they can come closer to a "definitive conclusion."
When asked about their thinking on the origins of the virus at a White House briefing Tuesday, senior health officials did not rule out a nonnatural cause.
“Many of us feel that it is more likely that this is a natural occurrence, as has happened with SARS-CoV-1, where it goes from an animal reservoir to a human,” said Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. “But we don't know 100 percent the answer to that.”
He added that because it’s a question that continues to come up, it’s “imperative” that the World Health Organization launch another investigation.
Andy Slavitt, a senior White House adviser for the Covid-19 response, agreed that it’s a “critical priority” for the U.S. to uncover the truth.
“It is our position that we need to get to the bottom of this, and we need a completely transparent process from China; we need the WHO to assist in that matter,” he said. “We don't feel like we have that now.”
An initial investigation jointly conducted by the WHO and China found that the coronavirus likely emerged in bats and spread to an intermediary animal before it spilled over into humans. It also said it’s “extremely unlikely” that the virus leaked from a lab in China.
The report, however, has been dogged by questions about China's transparency and willingness to cooperate and the investigators' lack of independence.
The probe was limited because it relied on access dictated by the Chinese government, and many of the Chinese scientists involved were affiliated with state-run institutions, critics said.