May 26, 2021 - Health

HHS chief calls for follow-up investigation into COVID origins

Secretary of Health and Human Services Xavier Becerra speaks to the press at Community of Hope, a community heath center, on May 5, 2021 in Washington, DC.

Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra during a May news conference at a community heath center in Washington, D.C. Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra told a virtual World Health Assembly meeting Tuesday there needs to be a "transparent, science-based" follow-up investigation into the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Why it matters: The original investigation by a team of scientists assembled by the World Health Organization and China's government returned inconclusive findings in March and was criticized by top officials including Secretary of State Antony Blinken.

  • Blinken told CNN at the time that the Biden administration has "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."

What they're saying: "Phase 2 of the COVID origins study must be launched with terms of reference that are transparent, science-based, and give international experts the independence to fully assess the source of the virus and the early days of the outbreak," Becerra said at the virtual meeting.

  • NIAID director Anthony Fauci said at a White House briefing Tuesday he believed the coronavirus originated from a "natural occurrence," but further investigation was needed.

Of note: Becerra also addressed the Chinese government's opposition to the WHO granting recognition to Taiwan.

  • "Global collaboration will be key in tackling the many challenges still before us," Becerra said.
  • "Collaboration with non-state actors must continue, and we must invite Taiwan to be a part of the World Health Assembly as an observer."

Flashback: The report identified the four possible origins of the virus:

  • Direct zoonotic spillover, which was deemed "possible to likely;"
  • Introduction through an intermediate host, regarded as 'likely to very likely;
  • Introduction through cold/ food chain products, which was considered to be "possible" and;
  • "Introduction through a laboratory incident" — which the WHO team said was "extremely unlikely.

The other side: Zhao Lijian, a spokesperson for China's foreign ministry said following criticism of the released report, "The U.S. has been speaking out on the report. By doing this, isn’t the U.S. trying to exert political pressure on the members of the WHO expert group?"

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