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Biden urges COVID-19 investigation to revive laboratory leak concept

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May 27, 2021, 6:07 a.m.

Here's today's foreign policy mandate: US President Joe Biden calls for one COVID-19 investigation, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko accuses the West of "hybrid warfare" and Biden will use a new name India and China Ambassador.

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Biden Calls for COVID-19 Origins Inquiry

U.S. President Joe Biden has ordered U.S. intelligence services to conduct an investigation into the origins of COVID-19 after calling for more in-depth studies and news reports supporting the theory that the virus may have leaked from a Wuhan laboratory. Biden asked the agencies to get in touch within 90 days.

In a statement on Wednesday, Biden said US intelligence agencies focused on two hypotheses about the origin of the virus: animal-to-human transmission or a laboratory accident.

Biden's comments reflected the lack of security and knowledge that still surrounds the search for the cause of the outbreak. “While two elements in the (intelligence) community tend towards the former scenario and one towards the latter – each with low or moderate confidence – most elements do not believe that there is enough information to judge whether one is more likely than the other, ”said Biden. Biden did not say which elements of the 18 US intelligence agencies contributed their analysis.

New evidence? The call for an investigation was fueled by a report recently published in the Wall Street Journal, citing a previously unpublished U.S. intelligence report that several lab technicians at the Wuhan Institute of Virology fell ill and weeks before the first COVID-19 case was recorded in China visited a hospital. The Journal's report placed some important caveats on the information: It is not uncommon for hospitals in China to receive medical care due to poor basic services, and the illnesses occurred at the height of the cold and flu season.

WHO discord. Nonetheless, the report added new fuel to allegations of a Chinese cover-up, following calls from 18 scientists in a letter published in Science magazine, which made an assessment of the origin of the virus that goes deeper than an investigation by a World Health Organization team, that found no clear evidence of animal transmission or a laboratory leak.

This is followed by the criticism of WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus of the report of the investigation team, which apparently seemed to reject the laboratory leak theory. "Although the team has concluded that a laboratory leak is the least likely hypothesis, it warrants further investigation," Tedros said in a statement.

Search in the dark. As James Palmer of Foreign Policy noted in the weekly China Letter newsletter, an international investigation is unlikely to get anywhere. “Demands for an independent, open investigation into the causes of the pandemic are fantasies. Even if the Wuhan authorities had a smoking gun, Beijing would block all outside investigators – out of instinct and because of the official lies of local and likely national authorities about the extent and virulence of the first outbreak, ”Palmer writes.

The failure of the Trump administration to uncover hard evidence of a China cover-up, despite all the incentives, makes the likelihood that new evidence will be found even further removed. Aaron Blake summed up this argument in the Washington Post on Monday. "Given the way the Trump administration has dealt with intelligence, there is little doubt that if there had been evidence, Trump would have pushed hard for his release. Trump could have done it whenever he wanted. It never happened, ”Blake wrote.

Open to debate. As US intelligence agencies consult their sources, the theory can now be discussed on the world's largest social media platform. "Given the ongoing investigations into the origin of COVID-19 and in consultation with public health experts, we will no longer dismiss the claim that COVID-19 was man-made from our apps," a Facebook representative said on Wednesday.

What we are following today

Lukashenko defiantly. Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko accused the West, in his first public statements since the forced diversion of a Ryanair flight, of waging a “hybrid war” against him in order to arrest a dissident journalist who sparked international condemnation. Without giving details, Lukashenko said that the imprisoned journalist Roman Protasevich had planned a "bloody uprising" in a remark to the Belarusian parliament. In view of the growing isolation from his western neighbors, Lukashenko will meet Russian President Vladimir Putin for a “working lunch” on Friday, according to Kremlin spokesman Dmitri Peskov.

Mali's turmoil. Mali's Interim President Bah Ndaw and Prime Minister Moctar Ouane resigned Wednesday, days after being arrested by the military after a cabinet reshuffle. Vice President Assimi Goita, a colonel who led the coup against Mali's government in August, has taken power after the purge. Goita has claimed that next year elections will go ahead as planned and that negotiations on the release of the interim leaders are still ongoing. The United States Security Council “condemned” the move in a joint statement on Wednesday, adding that French President Emmanuel Macron denounced a “coup within a coup”.

Macron in Rwanda. French President Emmanuel Macron visits Rwanda today as the two countries seek to improve relations after reports of the 1994 Rwandan genocide were released, in which French officials are, to varying degrees, responsible for combating mass murder. In Foreign Policy's Africa Policy, Lynsey Chutel previewed the trip, which included a stopover in South Africa, and outlined Macron's goals on the African continent.

Oil giants under pressure. Oil giants Exxon and Shell were dealt blows on Wednesday that could have a major impact on their business models and the fight against global warming. On Wednesday, a Dutch court ruled in favor of an environmental group that argued that Shell's oil exploration measures were against human rights and should cut carbon emissions much faster than the company had planned. The conflict is internal to Exxon as activist investors, backed by financial giant BlackRock, have managed to elect at least two new directors to its board of directors. The additions should lead Exxon to look more seriously at its energy transition policies, including investments in carbon capture technology.

New US ambassadors. US President Joe Biden has reportedly chosen two key ambassadorial positions as he begins filling embassies around the world. Nicholas Burns, a former senior US State Department official in the Obama administration, is expected to be named ambassador to China, while Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti is to be named ambassador to India. Both positions have yet to be approved by the Senate and follow the reported but undisclosed recommendations of former Deputy Secretary of State Tom Nides as Ambassador to Israel and former Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel as Ambassador to Japan.

Biden talks about Tigray. President Biden called for an end to "large-scale abuses" in Tigray as international pressure mounts on Ethiopia and Eritrea as a result of their actions in the month-long conflict. Biden called for a ceasefire, the withdrawal of the Eritrean armed forces and "immediate, unhindered humanitarian access to the region to prevent widespread famine".

The strong words follow restrictions on US economic and security aid to Ethiopia and visa restrictions for those "responsible for or involved in solving the crisis in Tigray," US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a statement. Ethiopia has denounced US restrictions and accused the United States of meddling in its internal affairs.

The Ecuadorian authorities have confirmed that a giant tortoise found two years ago in the Galapagos Islands is a member of a species believed to be extinct a century ago. Galápagos National Park officials used DNA testing from Yale University scientists to determine that the turtle was a Chelonoidis phantasticus. The last time such an animal was seen was in 1906, when an expedition from the California Academy of Sciences found (and subsequently killed) a male. The Galápagos park officials are now on an expedition to Fernandina Island – where the species originated – to search for more turtles to save the species from extinction.

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