Ben Roback is Head of Trade and International Policy at Cicero Group.
After courting President Xi over golf and dessert, Donald Trump made being a China hawk an accepted norm of his presidency. You can watch three minutes of Trump saying “China” in idiosyncratically Trumpian fashion on YouTube, with clips that long pre-date his time in the White House. For Trump the businessman, China was an opportunity. As a politician it became more of a threat.
It was therefore no surprise when Trump identified China as a scapegoat and began to blame the source of the Covid-19 outbreak on the Chinese state.
The theory goes that the virus originated at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, China. It deserves investigation and should not be dismissed out of hand. A previously undisclosed US intelligence report revealed that three researchers from China’s Wuhan Institute of Virology became sick enough in November 2019 that they sought hospital care.
The next month, cases of pneumonia were detected in Wuhan and first reported to the World Health Organization (WHO). In January, the Wuhan Municipal Health Commission announced the first death caused by the “novel coronavirus”. One of the final acts of the Trump administration in January was to release a State Department fact sheet on “Activity at the Wuhan Institute of Virology“. It was ultimately inconclusive in its recommendation:
The US government does not know exactly where, when, or how the Covid-19 virus – known as SARS-CoV-2 – was transmitted initially to humans. We have not determined whether the outbreak began through contact with infected animals or was the result of an accident at a laboratory in Wuhan, China.
Instead, it called heavily on the need for a true and thorough investigation into the source of the outbreak – something the Chinese state continues to block with full force, proving the desperate lack of power held within the WHO.
A Trump theory goes mainstream
Most things Trump said during his presidency became intensely politicised and an immediate anathema to Democrats and never-Trump Republicans. If the president said it, it was unconscionable for a Sen. Mitt Romney or Sen. Chuck Schumer. Could that change?
“In recent months, our nation and the world has been hit by the once-in-a-century pandemic that China allowed to spread around the globe,” Trump said at his speech accepting the GOP nomination in August 2020.
The Wuhan lab theory was seized on by Trump allies and acolytes on political talk shows. The “China virus” effectively became a Republican talking point (and with it, anti-Asian discrimination rose in the United States). That took the non-political, science-led impetus away from the theory.
Democrats and the functions of the US Government are coming round to the idea. Closer to home, in an interview with Canadian news, even Boris Johnson said he had an “open mind” about the origin of the virus.
Joe Biden would do well to differentiate between Trump’s – plausible but hitherto unproven – claim that Covid-19 was an intentional weapon distributed by the Chinese government.
One step back from that position, there is a clear and pressing need for a thorough investigation into the source of the outbreak to take place. The Chinese government, for all its smoke and mirrors, should not be allowed to eternally defy the United Nations and World Health Organization. It makes a mockery of global institutions like the UN and WHO if they cannot dilute disagreements in international relations and investigate matters of global significance like this.
The signs are beginning to emerge that the Biden presidency is taking the Wuhan theory seriously. Last week, President Biden ordered intelligence officials to “redouble” efforts to investigate the origins of Covid-19.
A report is expected on the president’s desk within 90 days. We will know in the autumn whether Trump will have been proven right, although his credibility when it comes to intelligence reports was diminished owing to several acts of self-sabotage having chosen to politicise reports and go against the US intelligence community.
This all proves that the Wuhan theory has now moved significantly in US political discourse. It was once a talking point for Republicans and Trump sycophants on Fox News, at CPAC and in the gilded halls of Mar-a-Lago. No Republican ever lost friends or votes blaming the pandemic on China.
A favoured stump speech topic of the likes of Trump, Mike Pompeo and Tom Cotton has now found its way firmly into the mainstream. In less than 90 days’ time, Trump could be vindicated. The “full investigation” sought by the US government seems inevitably impossible. Chinese state obstructionism will continue unchallenged. It will place an ongoing strain on US-China relations for years to come.