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Initial findings by a WHO team in China investigating COVID-19's origins appear to echo Beijing's talking points.

The big picture: Identifying the true cause of the COVID-19 pandemic is key to controlling it and preventing the next one, but geopolitical disputes are getting in the way of science.

Driving the news: On Tuesday, a WHO team concluded a two-week trip to China with a press conference announcing their preliminary findings that it was "extremely unlikely" the virus originated in a lab.

  • The team said "the most likely pathway" was through an intermediary host species between humans and the virus' original animal reservoir, which is probably a bat.

Details: The possibility that the virus might have leaked from the Wuhan Institute of Virology — a theory that had been pushed by the Trump administration and at least entertained by a minority of scientists — was always an outlier, if only because we've repeatedly seen coronaviruses and other emerging pathogens jump from animals to humans.

  • But many experts have criticized the WHO team for ruling out further investigation into a lab leak with a press conference before compiling a full report with clear data.

Between the lines: It didn't escape notice that even as it dismissed the idea of a lab leak, the WHO team opened the door to the possibility that the virus actually originated outside of China, coming into the country via contamination of frozen food.

Our thought bubble: It's impossible to judge an investigation before its full findings are known, and the reality is that we may never know the true story of COVID-19's origins given the geopolitical stakes involved.

  • But this investigation was a chance to highlight the very real danger of spillover from labs doing high-tech work with animal viruses — a danger that is growing by the year — and it would be a mistake to squander it.

Go deeper

New geopolitical fears surround 2022 Beijing Olympics

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Global fears of China's authoritarian rise are overshadowing the upcoming 2022 Winter Olympic Games in Beijing and sparking calls for a boycott.

Why it matters: By openly flouting human rights norms while claiming leadership of the international system, China is cracking the foundation upon which global traditions such as the Olympics are based.

Senators to grill top Pentagon leaders over Biden's Afghanistan exit

Photo: Carolone Brehman/Pool/AFP via Getty Images

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, Joints Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Mark Milley, and the head of U.S. Central Command, Gen. Frank McKenzie, are testifying publicly this week for the first time since the chaotic U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Why it matters: The Pentagon's top leaders have come under intense scrutiny over the series of disasters that followed the U.S. exit, including the Taliban's seizure of Kabul, the ISIS-K terrorist attack that killed 13 U.S. service members and scores of Afghans in August, and a retaliatory U.S. drone strike that killed 10 civilians.

Felix Salmon, author of Capital
2 hours ago - Economy & Business

Maybe we can ignore inflation expectations

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Just because we expect inflation to show up, doesn't mean it will. That's the message from an important new paper throwing cold water on a central tenet of monetary economics.

Why it matters: The Fed hikes interest rates when — and only when — it thinks inflation is otherwise going to be too high. That means it needs a formula to determine where it thinks inflation is going to be. But now a senior Fed economist is saying that the key ingredient in that formula "rests on extremely shaky foundations."