A new US Senate bill would punish Chinese officials for preventing an investigation into whether the Covid-19 pandemic could be tied to an infectious disease laboratory in Wuhan.
Introduced on Monday by Marco Rubio of Florida and 15 other Republican senators, the bill steps into a debate among scientists, politicians and governments about the hypothesis that, rather than being zoonotic - a natural virus that jumped from animals to humans - Covid-19 somehow escaped from a lab. The furore continues to fuel tensions between China and the US.
Called the Coronavirus Origin Validation, Investigation, and Determination (COVID) Act, the legislation would target officials in the Chinese Communist Party, military and State Council as well as the senior ranks of the Chinese Academy of Sciences.
The bill is a reworked version of similar legislation Rubio introduced last year, but that proposal did not include sanctions against Chinese officials and gained no support from other senators.
Freezing the officials' assets and blocking them from entering the US, the sanctions would take effect 90 days after the bill's enactment if the US was unable to certify that China had permitted a "transparent international forensic investigation" of laboratories in Wuhan, the city where the coronavirus was first detected.
Most scientists believe that natural transmission from animals to humans is the most likely explanation for the outbreak. But some maintain that the possibility - however small - of a lab leak or other research-related incident warrants investigation.
Beijing has rejected such calls, characterising them as attempts to deflect scrutiny of the pandemic response in the US, where Covid-related deaths have exceeded 840,000, far more than any other country.
China's effort to "obfuscate the truth has led to countless deaths and needless suffering worldwide", Rubio said on Tuesday. "It is clear that Beijing will only respond to concerted pressure from the United States and the international community."
As well as authorising sanctions, the bill would suspend federal funding for joint projects - in any field - with researchers linked to the Chinese Academy of Sciences.
Such limits represent "quite a shot across the bow of those seeking to maintain US-China science cooperation", said Julian Ku, a law professor at Hofstra University in New York.
Pressure on China has largely been bipartisan on Capitol Hill, but Rubio's bill drew no support from Democrats, who have accused Republicans of fuelling anti-Asian racism in the US with their coronavirus rhetoric.
Beijing has faced mounting criticism over the limited access it has provided to investigations into the origins of the virus, including from Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the director general of the World Health Organization.
"We are asking, actually, China to be transparent, open, and cooperate, especially on the information (and) raw data that we asked for at the early days of the pandemic," Tedros said last summer, breaking from his repeated earlier praise of Beijing's pandemic response.
After first declaring that a lab leak scenario did not warrant investigating, the WHO later changed course, proposing a further study that would consider the theory.
Tedros said that the lab leak hypothesis had been discounted prematurely, urging China to provide "full information" so the theory could be categorically ruled out.
China rejected the proposal and accused WHO, the United Nations health agency, of "arrogance" and a "disrespect for common sense".
White House officials have warned that Beijing will face isolation in the international community unless it cooperates with probes into the origins of the coronavirus - but have dodged questions about possible sanctions against Chinese officials.
Last year, a US intelligence investigation into the origins of the Covid-19 pandemic conducted last year discounted theories that the contagion had been engineered or released as a bioweapon, but left open the possibility that it was the result of a "laboratory-associated incident".
The report said the US intelligence community would likely be unable to draw a definitive conclusion without more information from China.
"From the beginning, government officials in China have worked to prevent international investigators and members of the global public health community from accessing it," said US President Joe Biden after receiving the report.
The White House did not respond to questions on Tuesday about whether it was considering punishing China. In November, a spokeswoman said that Washington would work with allies to "continue to press for transparency and answers from the PRC on key outstanding questions on the origins of the pandemic and its early days in China".
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