White House officials and world leaders gathered at the second COVID-19 summit on Thursday to talk about battling the pandemic and preventing future ones, but absent from the discussion were China and lingering questions of how COVID-19 came to be.
Some scientists and political leaders slammed the Biden administration for the omission, arguing it's not possible to prevent another pandemic without knowing what caused the first one.
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"An international COVID-19 summit that does not address the origin of COVID-19 is predestined to failure," said Richard Ebright, a professor of chemical biology at Rutgers University. "A U.S. plan for pandemic preparedness that does not include an investigation of the origin of COVID-19 and does not call for strengthening of biosafety and biosecurity oversight is a betrayal of the 1 million Americans who have died from COVID-19 and their families."
The event announcement touts the need for new spending in order to provide tests, treatments, and vaccines across the world and to prepare for the next outbreak. President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris both spoke, as did Secretary of State Antony Blinken and White House coronavirus response coordinator Ashish Jha. None directly mentioned China or the pandemic's origins.
A wide multitude of government, business, and philanthropic participants included representatives from Europe, South America, Asia, and Africa, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Clinton Health Access Initiative, the World Health Organization, and the World Bank. One panelist described the next pandemic as being "around the corner."
Among the initiatives touted Thursday is the establishment of a $450 million pandemic preparedness and global health security fund at the World Bank, with one of the overall goals being to prevent future health crises.
But the focus on vaccines, tests, and treatments ignores one of the largest issues, argued Dr. Steven Quay.
"The first step in preventing a pandemic would be to know how the previous one began," said Quay. "Science tells us that SARS-CoV-2 has features never seen before from nature. But these same features are a hallmark of gain-of-function research. Why does this summit ignore the question of the origin? Is it because China and America collaborated on the research and they have agreed to bury their culpability?"
Those concerns were echoed by Andrew Noymer, a population health and disease prevention professor at the University of California, Irvine.
"We typically study recent pandemics to prepare for the next one," Noymer said. "In fact, I have observed more than once that the leniency of the 2009 flu pandemic contributed to our lack of preparedness for the severity of the COVID pandemic. Given that there are competing hypotheses about the emergence of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID, preparation for the next pandemic should include leaving no stone unturned regarding the origins of COVID."
How the pandemic started remains a hotly debated topic, and government leaders and scientists have called for further research into the issue.
Some politicians want renewed investigations not only into the Chinese government's role in how the pandemic began, but also the actions of Western scientists such as Peter Daszak, who received U.S. taxpayer-funded grants to conduct gain-of-function research on bat coronaviruses in Wuhan, where COVID-19 originated.
Republican members of the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis called in April for the Biden administration to launch a new origins investigation, citing a possible cover-up as detailed in a Vanity Fair exposé.
Though Biden has said he is pushing Chinese officials to be more transparent with the investigations into the origins of the disease, conservatives have criticized his approach as being too soft.
"The Biden administration doesn't even know how this pandemic started, and now, President Biden wants to think about the next one, talking as if it's inevitable," Tea Party Patriots Chairwoman Jenny Beth Martin previously told the Washington Examiner. "Rather than appropriate another huge pile of money, isn’t it about time we gave the U.S. taxpayer a break?
China and Russia were noticeably absent from Thursday's summit. White House officials confirmed that Russia was not invited but were less clear about China, saying only that "with other countries, we have extended and asked for a financial or policy commitment."
Dr. Monica Gandhi, a professor of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, acknowledged the summit would be more useful with China's cooperation.
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"I wish that China had accepted the invitation since the first report of the SARS-CoV-2 virus epidemic came out of Wuhan as reported to the World Health Organization on Dec. 31, 2019," she said. "China should have valuable insights on the pandemic given this first report."
Gandhi also pointed to recent beef between China and the World Health Organization as to why China may not have participated.
A WHO-led fact-finding mission in China during November 2020 concluded that transmission of the virus from a bat to a human was possible to likely, with a laboratory incident listed as "extremely unlikely." Daszak was the only U.S. representative on the trip.