Why we must move past the pandemic origins debate

By Riley Griffin

Hi, it’s Riley in Washington. A report from Senate Republicans that alleges a lab leak likely caused Covid has complicated an already fraught debate. Will we ever find conclusive evidence of the pandemic’s origins? Let’s explore that question.

Behind the scenes with Dr. Doom

Robert Kadlec, the former US Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response under the Trump administration, known by close associates as “Dr. Doom,” spent more than a year scouring public records and conducting interviews alongside colleagues with backgrounds spanning from national security to infectious disease.

In a conference room in the Hart Senate Office Building, the team had covered the walls with maps, newspaper clippings, timelines and pictures of bats, mice and minks. This was all at the behest of Senator Richard Burr of North Carolina, a Republican member of the Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, who’d tasked them with figuring out where Covid-19 had come from.

Their initial 35-page report, which was released just days before the US midterm elections, claims “the Covid-19 pandemic was, more likely than not, the result of an accidental biocontainment breach at the [Wuhan Institute of Virology] between mid-October and no later than mid-November, 2019.” That controversial statement foreshadows months, if not years, of partisan clashes and additional probes of the virus’s origins.

But there’s more to the story than those 35 pages. Vanity Fair and ProPublica obtained a 236-page companion report prepared by a member of the team: Toy Reid, a State Department official who’d been detailed to the office of Sen. Marco Rubio to work on China policy issues. Together, Vanity Fair and ProPublica conducted their own five-month probe of Reid’s translations and interpretations of Chinese-language documents and published a piece describing the Wuhan Institute of Virology as a “biocomplex in crisis” that had experienced an “acute safety emergency in November 2019.” In other words, they said the lab had long faced issues maintaining safe conditions and had a particularly suspect breach take place just before the first known cases of Covid. 

A column in the Los Angeles Times called the exposé a “train wreck” based on mistranslations and misinterpretations of Communist Party memos that painted a more dire picture of biosafety conditions than was evident at the Wuhan Institute of Virology. Semafor, a new media startup, reported that ProPublica has scrambled to call translators to fact-check the story days after it published.

Link to Bloomberg Newsletter article by Riley Griffin

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