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Biden’s China ambassador changes tone on COVID-19 origins battle

Nicholas Burns
U.S. Ambassador to China nominee Nicholas Burns speaks during a hearing to examine his nomination before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Oct. 20, 2021. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky) Patrick Semansky/AP

Biden’s China ambassador changes tone on COVID-19 origins battle

October 20, 12:32 PM October 20, 12:32 PM

President Joe Biden’s nominee for ambassador to China appeared to change his tone about the war of words between China and the United States on the coronavirus after he repeatedly criticized both sides for a “blame game” last year.

Nicholas Burns, an ambassador during the Clinton administration and a State Department official during George W. Bush’s presidency, appeared before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Wednesday, with Sen. Ron Johnson, a Wisconsin Republican, highlighting comments the Harvard professor made in March 2020 in which he lamented: “Right now, we’re all witnessing a war of words. The Chinese have made a preposterous, untrue, and shameful assertion … They say that the crisis began because the U.S. army planted a weapon, a virus in the city of Wuhan. There is no basis for this … At the same time, President Trump personally calls this the ‘Chinese virus’ or the ‘Wuhan virus.’ We all know that’s wrong. We all know it’s racist. We all know it’s not true. The virus doesn’t know boundaries.”

Johnson grilled him on the remark, saying: “I guess I’m kind of wondering — how did you know? We still don’t know. How were you so positive that this wasn’t a lab leak theory, and have you changed your mind? Have you seen other evidence that would at least open up your mind to that prospect?”

Burns replied: “On the coronavirus, the problem here is with China. The Chinese government withheld information very clearly from their own people and the rest of the world for about a month in late December and January of 2020. I have consistently criticized the Chinese government for that, and they deserve to be criticized. And they’ve been stonewalling all of us around the world since January of 2020, including this week when they refused to act to work with the World Health Organization’s new investigative body to answer the question that you rightfully asked.”

Last week, the WHO announced a new COVID-19 origins team, including six people who were part of the widely criticized first team that deemed the Wuhan lab leak hypothesis “extremely unlikely” earlier this year.

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Numerous former Trump officials insist a lab leak is most likely.

Burns took to Twitter in May 2020 to attack former President Donald Trump for suggesting the virus emerged from the Wuhan Institute of Virology and alleged Trump was using China as a “scapegoat.”

“China owes it to the world to be more transparent about COVID-19. But Trump asserting the virus came from a Chinese government lab+threatening to sue for reparations is feckless and reckless without evidence,” Burns tweeted on May 1, 2020. “Passing the buck?”

Burns wrote an op-ed for Foreign Affairs on March 25, 2020, in which he criticized both the Trump administration and the Chinese government for a “blame game” over “who is ultimately responsible” for the COVID-19 pandemic.

Johnson followed up on Wednesday about the March 2020 remarks by Burns at Harvard, asking, “Are you still so certain that lab leak is off the table? … You said, ‘We all know that’s not true.’ Have you changed your thinking on that?”

Burns replied: “I believe that that quote from the Kennedy School event was directed to President Trump’s use of the term ‘Wuhan virus,’ which I did not think would be effective with the Chinese government or Chinese people or people around the world.

“It had nothing to do with the origins of the crisis, of the pandemic, and my position has been all along and continues this day — we need to investigate.”

Burns added: “I have never been a proponent of either one of these two options, but I think, as President Biden has said, we need to push the Chinese to come clean about what happened.”

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The former ambassador claimed during a Chatham House discussion on June 9, 2020, that the U.S. was accusing China of false things, arguing, “They’ve accused each other of the most outrageous things, both incorrectly.”

Burns also signed on to a letter in April 2020 that said an investigation into COVID-19’s origins should be pushed off, writing that “in time, in order to prevent or prepare for future outbreaks, there will be a need for a global review of the coronavirus pandemic,” including its origins, but that “for now, as the pandemic sweeps the globe, the focus should be on finding the resolve to work together to contain and defeat the virus.”

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