A top House Republican is calling on Secretary of State Antony Blinken to impose real costs on China for its cover-up of the COVID-19 outbreak in the early stages of the pandemic, arguing the Biden administration hasn’t done enough to hold it accountable.
Rep. Jim Banks, an Indiana Republican and chairman of the Republican Study Group, sent a letter, a copy of which was obtained by the Washington Examiner, to Blinken, as a deeply flawed WHO report on the coronavirus origins was made public. Officials from both the Trump and Biden administrations have said that the Chinese government worked for over a year to thwart an independent investigation into the origins of the virus, which has killed 2.79 million people worldwide, and both administrations cast doubt on the manner in which the WHO- China study was conducted in early 2021.
“I am writing you with regards to recent statements that you have made indicating that you will not seek punitive measures with regards to China overs its role in covering up — and thus facilitating — the COVID-19 pandemic,” Banks wrote to Blinken. “I appreciate your statements criticizing the World Health Organization investigations into the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic and your concerns regarding China’s role in helping write the WHO’s report. However, as you know, when dealing with China words are not enough.”
On Sunday, Blinken largely dodged a question on whether China should be punished for its COVID-19 cover-up. He instead said the United States should work to prevent future pandemics and strengthen its relationship with the World Health Organization.
“A big part is making sure we have a system in place, including with the World Health Organization that features transparency, that features information sharing, that features access for international experts at the start of something like this,” Blinken said. “And that’s where I think China, like every other country, has real obligations.”
Blinken added on the WHO report, a day before it was published: “We’ve got real concerns about the methodology and the process that went into that report, including the fact that the government in Beijing apparently helped to write it — but let’s see what comes out in that report,” Blinken said. “But we do need to have both accountability for the past, but I think our focus needs to be on building a stronger system for the future.”
WHO-Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said Tuesday that the Chinese government should have provided more complete data related to the early stages of the outbreak and said the WHO-China team had not fully investigated the potential of COVID-19 originating through an accidental leak from a Wuhan lab, a hypothesis he insisted still needed further study despite being dubbed “extremely unlikely” by the WHO-China team.
Banks wrote that “preventing another pandemic is a goal that we all share, but giving China a slap on the wrist after it continued to lie to the world and heightened the severity of the current pandemic is only going to make that goal harder to achieve.”
“Your conciliatory approach to seeking reforms to the WHO, particularly regarding its bias toward China, is similarly discouraging,” Banks wrote, adding, “Regardless of whether or not the virus escaped from the lab, the report’s credibility is unquestionably tainted because, as you acknowledge, China helped the WHO write it. You have stated that you believe that rejoining the WHO — without achieving a single reform — helped counter China by pressing for reforms from within. This is clearly not the case.” He asked Blinken for evidence that the U.S. rejoining the WHO had helped.
A Trump State Department fact sheet on the Wuhan Institute of Virology declassified in mid-January assessed that lab workers had fallen ill with COVID-19-like symptoms before the wider Wuhan outbreak in 2019 and that the Wuhan lab had conducted secret experiments with the Chinese military and gain-of-function research, though it did not draw specific conclusions about COVID-19’s origin. The Biden administration has declined to weigh in on the fact sheet, though the Washington Post reported that an unnamed Biden State Department official said that it was factually accurate.
“Does the State Department agree with the assessment that the Department itself released on January 15, 2021, under former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, which stated there was a reason to believe that the SARS-CoV-2 virus may have escaped from a lab in China based upon declassified intelligence?” Banks asked. “If not, what is the State Department’s preferred theory of origin?”
Banks also asked Blinken whether the State Department would recommend sanctions against Chinese Communist Party officials “responsible for the cover-up of the pandemic or for spreading harmful disinformation regarding the pandemic.” Numerous Chinese diplomats engaged in a global online disinformation campaign starting around March 2020, peddling falsehoods that COVID-19 didn’t begin in China and that it may have originated with the U.S. military.
Banks brought up the fact that top Chinese Foreign Ministry officials were still spreading such conspiracy theories. Chinese government spokesman Zhao Lijian said on Monday, “When will Fort Detrick be opened for international experts to visit, investigate, or study?” Another Chinese spokeswoman, Hua Chunying, echoed this on Tuesday, claiming that “there is still a big question mark over” the U.S. military. There is no evidence behind this.
Banks asked Blinken whether the U.S. would impose sanctions against those officials for the “spread of harmful disinformation with regards to the origin of the pandemic.” The Republican also pushed Blinken on why he had not committed to punishing China for its role in the pandemic and whether the State Department would seek reparations from China. He argued that “China must pay the burden and the cost endured by Americans because of their role in this pandemic” and noted that he had “previously called for the United States to bring a case before the International Court of Justice to seek damages from China for its role in the pandemic.”
Banks also asked Blinken if the State Department or Treasury Department would be holding any Chinese officials accountable for the death of Wuhan whistleblower Dr. Li Wenliang and whether Global Magnitsky Act sanctions would be considered.
Pompeo, the secretary of state under former President Donald Trump, slammed the WHO-China report, saying it was “a sham continuation of the CCP-WHO disinformation campaign.”
Biden press secretary Jen Psaki said Tuesday, “The report lacks crucial data, information, and access — it represents a partial and incomplete picture.” The State Department and a number of U.S. allies released a joint statement on Tuesday critiquing the WHO-China report, saying that “we join in expressing shared concerns regarding the recent WHO-convened study in China.”
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