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Biden Orders Investigation Into Origins Of The Coronavirus

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

President Biden has ordered U.S. intelligence agencies to redouble their efforts to try and figure out the origin of the coronavirus, and he wants the answer in 90 days. There are still questions about whether the virus spilled over from animals to humans or if it was accidentally leaked from a lab. But is it possible to get a conclusive answer about the origin without cooperation from China? NPR China affairs correspondent John Berwick is here to talk about this with us. Hi, John.

JOHN RUWITCH, BYLINE: Good morning.

MARTIN: So let's just start there. I mean, is cooperation from China even possible?

RUWITCH: If we're talking about an investigation that looks into this hypothesis that the pandemic originated from a Chinese lab of some - by some sort of mistake or leak, the answer is probably a hard no. I mean, China thinks the Biden administration is politically motivated in pushing for this 90-day review. You know, throughout the pandemic, the Chinese government has really bristled at the idea that the pandemic came from an error or from some sort of an accident at a Chinese lab. They've even promoted theories that the coronavirus didn't originate in China to begin with. Of course, it was first detected right in the city of Wuhan. But, you know, for instance, there are reports out of China that they've found samples on imported frozen food, the suggestion being that maybe it came in originally on frozen food. They say potentially U.S. military delegation, U.S. military personnel who were participating in the Military World Games in Wuhan in October of 2019 brought it in. So, you know, I think open genuine cooperation in China is unlikely at this point, especially now. Relations are just so tense and so strained between the two.

MARTIN: Yeah. Is it clear what exactly the Biden administration is asking for? I mean, can intelligence agencies do more than they've already been doing?

RUWITCH: Yeah, that's a good question. At this stage, we just know that they're doing this 90-day push. They're likely to review existing intelligence. They may coordinate with allies, which has been a big cornerstone of Biden's approach to China so far. What happens afterwards is presumably dependent on the findings. You know, the context of all this is important, though. Biden administration requested that the intelligence agencies look into this on Wednesday. That was a day after the annual meeting of the World Health Assembly, where Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra pushed transparency in the next phase of the WHO investigation into the origins and said that international experts should really be given independence to look into this. He didn't name China, but that was aimed at China, presumably. I mean, the first phase of the investigation in January and February was criticized for being pretty stage managed by the Chinese government, nontransparent. I mean, China has said, basically, that the China part is done. And White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki told reporters yesterday that, you know, that made it clear, in her words, that they were not going to engage constructively on a second part of the investigation.

MARTIN: So a moment ago, you said relations between the U.S. and China are strained across the board. So it didn't make a difference to have an election, to have a new president here in the U.S.

RUWITCH: Well, so far, the Biden administration is is keeping many of the Trump-era policies in place. They're in the midst of a China policy review for which there's no hard deadline. The tariffs are still in place, for instance, from the trade war. You know, the U.S. trade representative, Katherine Tai, had a phone call with China's vice premier, Liu He, this week. There was no obvious progress towards easing tension.

MARTIN: All right. NPR's John Ruwitch, we appreciate your reporting on this. Thank you so much.

RUWITCH: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.