WASHINGTON — Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., is preparing to introduce a bill that would place new sanctions on China unless it allows “a transparent international investigation of suspect laboratories in Wuhan,” in particular the Wuhan Institute of Virology, which has become the focus of intense speculation and scrutiny in recent months, including from President Biden.

Rubio and other Biden critics want the president to be more aggressive in getting China to accede to a thorough investigation, which the country’s leadership has so far resisted. Biden suggested earlier this week that he would apply pressure on Beijing, but he offered no specifics about how he would do so.

Neither the White House nor the office of Charles Schumer, the Senate Majority Leader, responded to queries from Yahoo News about new sanctions for China, but a senior staffer in Rubio’s office said that there were some encouraging signs of bipartisan support. Democrats may resist endorsing a bill by Rubio — a likely challenger to Biden in the 2024 election — but they ultimately have few options to compel cooperation aside from the kind of sanctions his proposed legislation describes.

“The Chinese Communist Party does not want a full, forensic investigation into the origins of COVID-19. If they did, it would have happened at some point during the last 18 months,” Rubio told Yahoo News. “It is clear Beijing fears the results of” such an investigation “far more than international backlash over its lack of transparency.”

If Russia was the top geopolitical foe of the Trump era, China seems to be playing that role in the Biden administration. Earlier this month, the Senate passed a bill bolstering the American technological sector to make it more competitive with China, with the measure enjoying the kind of broad support rarely seen in Washington anymore.

While the scientific establishment still favors the hypothesis of a zoonotic spillover from bats to an intermediate species, such as the pangolin, and then to humans, that hypothesis has its skeptics, and the ranks of those skeptics are growing. For one, the intermediate species has yet to be found. And the reluctance of Chinese authorities to share information has only buttressed the notion that there is, indeed, something to hide.

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“We need to know this,” Dr. Peter Hotez, an infectious disease expert from Baylor College of Medicine, told Yahoo News. “We’re going to have to find this out.”

Hotez was one of the nation’s first prominent scientists to call for a broader investigation into the lab escape theory. Yet he also denounces what he calls the “preposterous” insinuations of Trump and his supporters, arguing that a zoonotic spillover is still the most likely explanation for how SARS-CoV-2 came to ravage the world.

More recently, the lab escape hypothesis received an unlikely boost from comedian Jon Stewart, who during his “Daily Show” days routinely skewered Republicans and their crusades. In a widely viewed and discussed appearance on “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert,” Stewart may have done more to legitimate the notion of a lab escape than any scientist or politician since the pandemic began.

Sen. Marco Rubio. (Stefani Reynolds/Pool via AP)

The pandemic, he said, was “more than likely caused by science.” 

Nearly 4 million people have watched Colbert’s interview with Stewart on YouTube alone, making Rubio’s timing somewhat auspicious. With summer approaching and the pandemic receding, there may not be another moment when the public is so acutely focused on how the pandemic began.

Rubio’s measure would target the Chinese Academy of Sciences (including hundreds of affiliates and satellites), prohibiting the U.S. government from funding “any joint research or other collaborative projects” unless Chinese authorities allow a full investigation into the virus’s origins within 90 days of the bill’s passage.

It also places sanctions on the finances of high-ranking officials at the science academy and prevents American researchers from receiving funds from the federal government if they are working on “gain-of-function” research with Chinese counterparts. Such research modifies viruses to make them more potent and could have led, some believe, to the advent of the coronavirus.

“Instead of hoping China will suddenly cooperate, the United States needs to compel cooperation,” Rubio told Yahoo News. The investigation he envisions would include interviews with Chinese scientists, in particular Shi Zhengli, a noted researcher into bat coronaviruses. In a recent interview with the New York Times, she fervently denied that her work was in any way responsible for the pandemic.

President Trump was an ardent proponent of the lab leak hypothesis, but he framed the issue in a way that many found xenophobic and conspiratorial. Now that he is no longer president, the theory has started to gain acceptance from mainstream scientists, as well as from some legislators from both parties. Last month, for example, the unlikely duo of Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., and Sen. Roger Marshall, R-Kan., issued a sharply worded resolution calling for a new investigation into how the pandemic began.

Security personnel keep watch outside the Wuhan Institute of Virology during a visit by the World Health Organization, Feb. 3, 2021. (Thomas Peter/Reuters)

Investigators with the World Health Organization did visit Wuhan several months ago, but their access was tightly controlled and circumscribed by Chinese authorities. That left the WHO’s own director general, Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, dissatisfied with the resulting report, which endorsed the zoonotic hypothesis.

At the time, Rubio charged that the WHO report was “misleading and incomplete.” Since then, some Democrats who had been previously reluctant to endorse a hypothesis supported by Trump have come around to the same opinion. “We have to have answers to these questions,” Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., who was himself sickened with COVID-19, said recently.

It is extremely unlikely that China would ever agree to Rubio’s demands, even if those demands were to become enshrined in law. His bill requests “unlimited access to the full range of virus culture, isolates, genetic sequences, databases and patient specimens” at the Wuhan Institute of Virology and other biomedical institutions in that city.

To avoid sanctions, China would have to allow a high level of access, including to sewer samples from laboratories where gain-of-function research was conducted and “unfettered accesses” to the abandoned copper mine in Yunnan province where virologists from Wuhan traveled to study bats.

Rubio also wants Wuhan Institute of Virology employees tested for coronavirus antibodies. The presence of such antibodies could serve as evidence that the pandemic began there, though Wuhan researchers could have also contracted the virus elsewhere. Three employees of the Wuhan Institute of Virology were hospitalized in late 2019 with symptoms consistent with those of COVID-19.

Beijing has fervently denied any responsibility for the pandemic, going so far as to suggest that the coronavirus escaped not from a Chinese facility but from the bioweapons facility in Fort Detrick, Md. There is no evidence to support that assertion, but its introduction — however cynically made — only underscores how little is known about how the coronavirus pandemic truly did begin.

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