President Joe Biden said in February that he was "interested in getting all the facts" from China on the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic, but according to a public admission this week, he has passed up several opportunities to press the Chinese for answers.
Biden said he would work to get facts from China, and he and senior administration officials have had extensive conversations with Chinese leaders. The president said on Tuesday, however, that he has "not had a conversation with President Xi" regarding whether China misled the world on the coronavirus.
In February Biden had a private phone call with Chinese president Xi Jinping, and his top diplomats held a lengthy meeting with their Chinese counterparts in Anchorage last month. The subjects of COVID’s origins and China’s early efforts to conceal the severity of the virus were not mentioned in readouts from either meeting, and were not discussed during the public portions of the Anchorage summit.
The administration’s failure to press Beijing about its reported role in covering up the virus’s early spread calls into question whether the White House views the issue to be as high a priority as publicly stated.
When a reporter asked Biden in February if he had "any interest in punishing China for not being truthful about COVID last year," the president said he was "interested in getting all the facts" on the issue.
In March, State Department spokesman Ned Price also listed the COVID-origin subject as one of the top priorities for the administration’s Anchorage summit.
"We are going to discuss those more difficult areas with the Chinese ... the origins of COVID-19, other issues—I have every expectation they will come up," Price said.
China has been criticized for intentionally downplaying the contagiousness and severity of the virus during its early days, allowing it to spread undetected for months and grow into a global crisis. There are also questions about where the virus originated. The World Health Organization has said it most likely spread from infected animals at a market in Wuhan, but the U.S. government has also questioned whether it was accidentally released from a nearby virology lab.
U.S. intelligence officials have not ruled out the lab-leak theory, noting that China hasn’t been cooperative and took early steps to conceal the origins of the virus, according to NBC News.
Biden and Xi could come face to face as soon as April 22, when Biden hosts a virtual climate summit with world leaders. Xi has received an invitation but has yet to officially confirm his attendance. The White House declined to comment on whether Biden plans to raise the COVID-origin issues with Xi during the event.