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At a press conference following his meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Geneva on Wednesday, President Biden disputed a journalist’s characterization of Chinese President Xi Jinping as an “old friend” who might be persuaded to allow an international investigation into the origins of the coronavirus pandemic.
“Let’s get something straight — we know each other well, we’re not old friends,” Biden said. “It’s just pure business.”
Biden had several sharp exchanges with journalists after he concluded his bilateral meeting with Putin, including an especially heated one with CNN’s Kaitlan Collins. Before boarding Air Force One on his way back to Washington, he approached a scrum of reporters and apologized for being a “wise guy.”
The characterization of Biden and Xi as something other than adversaries came courtesy of Fox News reporter Peter Doocy, who has become a White House adversary in recent months. Doocy pressed Biden on whether his long-standing relationship with the Chinese leader could help as the United States and other nations try to find out how, as researchers believe, the pandemic originated in the Chinese city of Wuhan sometime in late 2019.
“Is there going to become a time where you might call him, old friend to old friend, and ask him to open up China to the World Health Organization investigators who are trying to get to the bottom of COVID-19?” Doocy asked.
Biden may dispute the terms of his relationship with Xi, but during the presidential campaign he frequently invoked having traveled 17,000 miles with him as vice president to Barack Obama. Xi was the Chinese vice president at the time.
“That’s how I got to know him so well,” Biden said of their travels. But the extent of the travels was “misleading,” the Washington Post found earlier this year. Now that both men are presidents of their respective nations, they must figure out how to resolve the virus origin issue. Republicans have been especially adamant that Biden confront China more forcefully over the possibility that human activity was responsible for a pandemic that has sickened 177 million people worldwide.
While scientific consensus has held that the virus began at a market, an alternate view is that it “escaped” from a laboratory where it was being studied.
While Biden has allowed that China has not been forthcoming about how the coronavirus began, he has thus far failed to explain how he will confront the communist nation over the increasingly contentious issue of the pandemic’s origins.
“China is trying very hard to project itself as a responsible and very, very forthcoming nation,” the president said Wednesday.
Biden portrayed Beijing’s shipment of millions of doses of coronavirus vaccine as an effort by China to try to cast itself as a responsible global citizen. He predicted that those efforts would come to naught unless Chinese leaders allow a more thorough investigation into how the coronavirus began.
“Certain things you don’t have to explain to the people of the world,” Biden said. “They see the results. Is China really, actually trying to get to the bottom of this?”
Many scientists believe that the hypothesis that the coronavirus escaped from the Wuhan Institute of Virology needs to be taken as a serious possibility, and the theory has entered the mainstream, with Biden’s own approval. But evaluating what remains a highly speculative notion will be impossible without China’s cooperation.
Republicans, meanwhile, are already calling for new sanctions on China, though there is only circumstantial evidence to suggest a lab accident was responsible, and even that evidence has been forcefully disputed.
Investigators for the World Health Organization have been allowed only limited access to Wuhan, and their ensuing report — which endorsed the hypothesis that the coronavirus originated at a wildlife market there — was widely criticized.
Biden recently asked the intelligence community to provide a detailed report on how the pandemic originated. Yahoo News reported last spring that the intelligence community was considering the possibility of a lab escape in the earliest stages of the pandemic.
Without unfettered access to the Wuhan Institute of Virology — its facilities, records and staff — no investigation will be deemed complete; such access is fully dependent on China. Beijing has forcefully disputed any suggestion that its scientists were in any way responsible for the advent of the coronavirus.
As the president’s comments on Wednesday made clear, that impasse will be difficult to resolve. Biden tried to move past it, saying he would “rally the world” in trying to stop the next pandemic. Epidemiologists believe that another will be on its way shortly.
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