briefing, Albert Mohler

Friday, April 17, 2020

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.

It’s Friday, April 17, 2020. I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.

Part I

The World Health Organization and the Current Pandemic: The Controversy and its Context

We find ourselves repeatedly using the term “global pandemic” because we have no other way of describing the reality of the coronavirus crisis. When we use those two words, “global” and “pandemic,” we’re pointing to the fact that it is indeed global. It is going to touch, we are told, just about everywhere human beings are found on planet earth. And furthermore, it is a pandemic, not just an epidemic, which can be a more limited outbreak of infectious disease. It is a pandemic. That raises the stakes considerably. When you put the two words together, “global pandemic,” this should strike fear or concern into just about every mind. That’s exactly what we’re talking about.

And that leads to big headlines this week in the United States that have reverberated worldwide, and that is the fact that President Trump has announced that his administration is putting a hold on American funding of the World Health Organization for at least 30 to 90 days until a consideration can be undertaken as to whether or not the WHO is trustworthy.

Now, this gets immediately to accusations that it’s all politics, and after all we’re talking about politicians, we’re talking about government, so it can never be without political consideration, but this story deserves a much closer look. Yesterday’s edition of the New York Times had a front page story with the headline, “Allies of Trump Mounted Drive Against WHO.” Michael D. Shear reported, “Fox News pundits and Republican lawmakers have raged for weeks at the World Health Organization for praising China’s handling of the coronavirus crisis. On his podcast, President Trump’s former chief strategist Stephen K. Bannon urged his former boss to stop funding the WHO, citing its ties to the ‘Chinese Communist Party.’” Now, what’s interesting here is not just that the New York Times on the front page treats this as an explicitly political story and apparently mostly a political story, but the fact that even as it cites someone as controversial as Stephen K. Bannon, it also refers to his citation of the Chinese Communist Party, putting that in quotation marks as if that is strange.

But of course, in this sense, there’s no way around it. If you’re talking about the government in China, you’re talking about the communist party in China. The leadership is the same. The autocracy, the totalitarian government is the same. When you cite the Chinese Communist Party, you’re talking about the sole central power in all of China, from the elite all the way down to the smallest community. The iron rule of the Chinese Communist Party reminds us of the total in totalitarian. The point being made by the New York Times is twofold and that is the accusation that this is basically a political move and that in doing so, President Trump is trying to effectively shift the blame on the coronavirus from the United States and its political leadership to the political leadership in China.

But there’s more to the story here, and that’s reflected in the fact that if you take two of the most influential American newspapers, just the New York Times and the Washington Post, you’re looking at two very different ways of describing this big story. For example, an article by Emily Rauhala of the Washington Post has the headline, “Trump’s Critique of WHO May Be a Diversion, But It Resonates Beyond the White House.” Indeed, major media reports around the world indicate that this concern about the World Health Organization does resonate far beyond the White House. The statements coming from the government in Japan are, if anything, a lot hotter than the statements coming from the government in Washington. Japan’s deputy prime minister recently referred to the World Health Organization as the China Health Organization, and we’re also told that in Japan, nearly one million people have signed an online petition calling forward the director general of the World Health Organization to resign.

The Washington Post article gets right to the heart of the issue. “In the early days of the crisis, the World Health Organization amplified Chinese claims and figures without signaling that they could be inaccurate. The organization was slow to address the risk of human to human transmission, slow to declare a public health emergency, and slow to use the term pandemic. Yet,” says the Washington Post, “it was quick to praise Beijing. As evidence mounted that China had silenced whistleblowers and undercounted cases, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the WHO’s director general, continued to heap compliments on Beijing and dodged questions about worrying problems with the Chinese response.” One official—and let’s just note, he is not peripheral. He’s not coming from some kind of political organization—David Fidler an adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, D.C., addressing the World Health Organization said, “You had the authority. You had the ability to challenge China, to question China as to what they were doing, and you needed to do that for global health. You failed to do it.”

Again, credit goes to the Washington Post for another article, this one by Ishaan Tharoor. The headline, “It’s Not Just Trump Who’s Angry at China.” We’ll look at that article more in just a moment, but going back to the World Health Organization, I also want to look at yet another newspaper, and this one would be the Wall Street Journal. In an editorial published 11 days ago, on Monday, April the 6th, the Wall Street Journal ran the editorial with the headline, “World Health Disinformation.” Again, we’re talking about the Wall Street Journal here. This is not a peripheral newspaper in American public life. The newspaper’s editorial board, however, indicted the World Health Organization and its director general for complicity with China in covering up the origins of the virus, the extent of the virus, and actually accusing both China and the World Health Organization with irresponsible behavior that led to the further spread of the virus.

The historical account cited by the Wall Street Journal is very important, and I quote it. “Taiwanese officials warned the WHO on December the 31st that they had seen evidence that the virus could be transmitted human to human, but the agency bowing to Beijing doesn’t have a normal relationship with Taiwan. On January the 14th, WHO tweeted, ‘Preliminary investigations conducted by the Chinese authorities have found no clear evidence of human to human transmission.’” The editorial tells us, “The agency took another week to reverse that misinformation.” Now, again, consider that date. That tweet from the World Health Organization was on the 14th of January. That wasn’t true then and it should have been known. It should have been communicated.

Then the editorial continues, “On January 22 through 23, a WHO emergency committee debated whether to declare COVID-19 a public health emergency or international concern.” The editors note, “The virus already had spread to several countries and making such a declaration would have better prepared the world. It should have been an easy decision despite Beijing’s objections. Yet,” say the editors, “Director General Tedros Ghebreyesus declined and instead traveled to China.”

The account continues, “He finally made the declaration on January 30, losing a week of precious time, and his rhetoric suggests the trip to Beijing was more about politics than public health.” He said, “The Chinese government is to be congratulated for the extraordinary measures it has taken. I am left in absolutely no doubt about China’s commitment to transparency.” But just about every informed source worldwide is now in agreement that the words “Chinese transparency” do not belong together.

But the most ominous and morally significant statement in this editorial statement by the editorial board of the Wall Street Journal is this: “A University of Southampton study suggests the number of coronavirus cases could have been reduced by 95% had China moved to contain the virus three weeks sooner.”

Now, I drew in contrast, given the president’s announcement of the interruption in funding, a contrast between the New York Times and the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal, but I also want to go back to the New York Times, not to the article that ran yesterday, but to an article that ran basically a week ago on April the 9th. This was by Javier C. Hernández. The headline was, “WHO Draws Criticism From Washington, and Other Critics Concur.” Now, at the very least, you would think there would be some consistency in the reporting between the article that appeared yesterday and the article that appeared in the same newspaper just about a week previous, but in this article we are told, “Critics say the WHO has been too trusting of the Chinese government, which initially tried to conceal the outbreak in Wuhan. Others have faulted the organization and its leader, Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, for moving too slowly in declaring a global health emergency.”

This article in the New York Times also indicated that there was the recognition that the WHO and other international organizations have been targeted by China, and that means by the communist party in China, for worldwide influence. But the paper ran this article on April the 9th that stated clearly, “The WHO is coming under attack at a time when China’s leader, Xi Jinping, has made it a priority to strengthen Beijing’s clout at international institutions, including the WHO. Mr. Xi,” says the newspaper, “sees the American dominated global order as an impediment to his country’s rise as a superpower.” The article back then also reflected the fact that China contributes very little to the budget of the WHO, but has what appears to be maximum political influence.

But much of this background was actually very helpfully described by Lanhee J. Chen in an article that appeared in the Wall Street Journal also on April the 9th. That is the very same day that the other article appeared in the New York Times. This headline was, “Lost in Beijing: The Story of the WHO.” Lanhee Chen, who is a fellow at the Hoover Institution and director of domestic policy studies at the public policy program at Stanford University, argued that the WHO is very compromised by China. As he wrote, “While Washington pays, Beijing works behind the scenes to influence WHO leaders. The current director general, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, was backed strongly by the Chinese government during his campaign for the job.” Chen continues, “Mr. Tedros was a controversial pick, dogged by allegations of having covered up cholera outbreaks in his native Ethiopia where he served as health minister and foreign minister. During those years, China invested in Ethiopia and lent it billions of dollars. Shortly after winning his WHO election, Mr. Tedros traveled to Beijing and lauded the country’s healthcare system, ‘We can all learn something from China.'”

Lanhee Chen then stated plainly, “Under Mr. Tedros’ leadership, the WHO has accepted China’s falsehoods about the coronavirus and helped launder them into respectable looking public health assessments.” Later in this article, Lanhee Chen argues that the WHO prioritizes politics over public health. “It has internalized Beijing’s view of Taiwan and seeks to praise China’s leaders at every turn, and at no point during the crisis has the WHO substantively investigated the Chinese regime’s claims about the virus or been transparent about the thinking behind its decisions.” We often refer to the worldview issues implicated with global organizations such as the United Nations. The World Health Organization has a very similar and indeed of course related pedigree. It goes back to what was known as the International Sanitary Conferences originating in June of 1851 in an effort undertaken by leaders in the Western world with contacts through especially Western empires of the rest of the world to try to limit public health problems and contagion.

Formerly, the World Health Organization as it is today was established in April of 1848. The 7th of April, then commemorated by some as World Health Day. But arguing from the basic Christian principle of subsidiarity, that is the greatest authority and effectiveness is found in the smallest unit beginning with the family, you look at the fact that when you get to the size of a global organization like the WHO, it consumes a lot of money but has very limited effectiveness. It has no particular authority. That’s not to say it never has a positive effect. It has been credited with certain public health gains in certain parts of the world, but the fact is American tax payers are putting hundreds of millions of dollars into the organization annually, or at least have been, and at least at one point it was reported in a recent year that the organization has spent more than $200 million—that’s about 40% of the American annual contribution, $200 million a year—merely on travel, more than it’s been on eradicating many diseases.

But as we seek to think in informed worldview terms and we seek to analyze a story like this, we need to recognize of course politics is a part of this. You’re talking about government, which means you’re talking about politicians. Of course we need to factor that in, but we also have to look at the bigger picture and we have to look at the bigger looming issues. But as we also seek continually to be responsible and fair in looking at media reports, we have to understand that there is always the potential for something like a conspiracy theory to be set loose. You don’t want to participate in anything that would be expanding untruths or that kind of conspiracy theory. The problem, however, with dismissing all conspiracy theories, is that sometimes there actually is a conspiracy. One of the principles of someone who’s going to be intellectually respectable is to be able to source and to follow an argument looking for checks and balances, looking for authoritative statements.

In this case, one of our responsibilities is to track a big story or what might be a big story and find out, is it validated in credible press reports? And one of the things that has come up recently is that there are allegations that, for example, the virus itself emerged from a Chinese weapons lab. That turns out probably not to be true, and at least at this point, the credibility of that statement has to be measured against statements coming from American intelligence agencies and on the record government authorities in the United States. The on the record issue there is very important.

Part II

So, How Exactly Did the Coronavirus Emerge? Its an Important, and Scary Question

But even as that clarification has been made, it turns out there’s a bigger story, and it also takes us back to China, and it does take us to an infectious disease lab. It does take us to Wuhan. And once again, we turn to Washington Post. We make the observation, The Washington Post is not a conservative newspaper. It’s a very liberal newspaper in terms of its editorial stance. The Washington Post, however, does represent mainstream professional journalism, which means it isn’t going to run a story unless it sources it. It isn’t going to run a story that hasn’t been professionally vetted. We may not like the story and we may not like the editorial stance of the newspaper, but that actually lends credibility when looking at a story like this.

For example, The Washington Post deserves a lot of credit. In recent days, an article by Josh Rogin with the headline, “State Department Cables Warned of Safety Issues at Wuhan Lab Studying Bat Coronaviruses.” Rogin in the Washington Post takes us back to January of 2018 when the United States embassy in Beijing “took the unusual step of repeatedly sending U.S. science diplomats to the Wuhan Institute of Virology, which had in 2015 become China’s first laboratory to achieve the highest level of international bioresearch safety known as BSL or bioresearch safety level four.” Rogin then tells us, “What the U.S. officials learned during their visits concerned them so much that they dispatched two diplomatic cables categorized as sensitive but unclassified back to Washington. The cables warned about safety and management weaknesses at the lab and proposed more attention and help.” The first cable, which Rogin cites as having seen himself, “also warns that the labs work on bat coronaviruses and their potential human transmission represented a risk of a new SARS-like pandemic.” Speaking of the cable, one U.S. official said to the post, “The cable was a warning shot. They were begging people to pay attention to what was going on.”

But even before that report, the Washington Post had run an article by David Ignatius. The headline was, “How Did COVID-19 begin? Its Initial Origin Story Is Shaky.” The official position of the Chinese government is that this particular coronavirus was transmitted to a human being near the seafood market in Wuhan, but there is a problem with that claim. As Ignatius describes, “Scientists have identified the culprit as a bat coronavirus through genetic sequencing. Bats weren’t sold at the seafood market, although that market or others could have sold animals that had contact with bats.” But then Ignatius says this: “There’s a competing theory of an accidental lab release of bat coronavirus that scientists have been puzzling about for weeks.” Then the article continues, “Less than 300 yards from the seafood market is the Wuhan branch of the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention.” Ignatius continues, “Researchers from that facility and the nearby Wuhan Institute of Virology have posted articles about collecting bat coronaviruses from around China for study to prevent future illness.” Ignatius then asked, “Did one of those samples leak or was hazardous waste in a place where it could spread?”

Ignatius then cites Richard Ebright, a microbiologist at Rutgers University who is also a biosafety expert. He told Ignatius, “The first human infection could have occurred as a natural accident. That would mean that the virus would have passed from bat to human, possibly through another animal.” But, says Ignatius, the scientist cautioned that it “also could have occurred as a laboratory accident with, for example, an accidental infection of a laboratory worker.” Rutgers Ebright also observed that the bat coronaviruses were studied in Wuhan at biosafety level two rather than under the conditions of the biosafety level four. This sounds like a bad movie, but it is actually a media report in the Washington Post.

The article in the Washington Post also pointed to the fact that a major research academic article from inside China in which it had been recognized that the coronavirus probably originated from a laboratory in Wuhan has disappeared. When you think about the power of the Chinese Communist Party, that is really not such a mystery after all.

But what both of these articles in the Washington Post underline is that this is not most importantly a blame game. It is important to figure out how this happened, but more importantly, it’s important to figure it out for understanding the virus itself and how to combat it. But all of this taken together does point to one of the scariest aspects of the coronavirus crisis. Did this virus actually emerge by accident from a laboratory? But in a fallen world, isn’t it interesting and humbling to reflect upon the fact that given the reality of viruses in this fallen world and given the threat of those viruses, we actually do need at least some of these laboratories to conduct the research that would enable us to identify the viruses in order to combat them and limit them and potentially by vaccine or other treatment to defeat them? But it is humbling and horrifying to reflect upon the fact that the very same laboratories, if the research is not conducted with adequate care, can become the very source of a killer and mutated virus to spread to human transmission outside the lab, perhaps carried out simply by a worker who had not followed the appropriate procedures.

And furthermore, other scientists have speculated that it could have been possible that the virus itself had achieved a human transmission amongst one of the workers and researchers, the scientists, or others within these laboratories. But in any event, it appears to me far more than a coincidence that these particular laboratories were located just yards from the seafood market in Wuhan, where the Chinese government says the virus had originated and had been transmitted to humans in Wuhan, which became the first epicenter of the pandemic.

But finally on this issue, I need to recognize that on Tuesday of this week, Walter Russell Mead of the Wall Street Journal ran another article. The headline: “China Still Misleads the World.” But the point made by Walter Russell made is not just that the communist party and the communist government in China have been found lying again. As Mead points out, that is its “official policy.” But his point is that in this case, a truthful account of the virus in China would help us now in the United States and around the world know what to expect and what to do. He points to a study in which it’s estimated that in China, the total cases were 2.9 million rather than 82,000.

As Walter Russell Mead points out, if true, this means that China has concealed the fact that its number is greater than the total number of cases reported in the rest of the world. Mead then writes, “These data matter. Without accurate information about the number and location of cases including asymptomatic cases from China, it is much harder for the rest of the world to understand basic facts about the disease and its spread.” He concludes, “The absence of accurate information from China makes it more difficult to know when it is safe to lift lockdowns. And,” as Mead writes, “the world doesn’t need propaganda shipments of often unusable Chinese medical equipment. The world needs Beijing to tell the truth.” But then he says these words, and that brings us back to the totalitarian nature of the Chinese government: “Unfortunately, China can’t level with the world without leveling to its own people. That is,” he concludes, “the one thing the party can never do.”

Part III

From “Houston, We've Had A Problem Here” to “How Do We Get Home?” — The 50th Anniversary of the Return of Apollo 13

But finally, today on a far happier note, this date is the 50th anniversary of the successful splashdown of the Apollo 13 mission. The three Apollo 13 astronauts, Fred Haise, Jack Swigert, and Jim Lovell, who was the commander of the mission, had taken off on the 11th of April, but on the 13th of April as they were approaching the moon, an oxygen tank had exploded and it was a big problem. Swigert, the command module pilot, had radioed to mission control in Houston, “Okay, Houston, we’ve had a problem here,” and then Commander Lovell cut in, “Houston, we’ve had a problem.” Those words became iconic, not only in 1970, but they persist in American culture until today, and there’s good reason for it. The reality is that in 1970 when the explosion took place, there was no confidence even amongst leaders in the American Space Program that the astronauts could be brought back safely. Indeed, it was an incredible achievement that brought together the ingenuity and scientific expertise of the day, but it also brought out one of the greatest displays of human courage in our times.

The crew survived by going into the lunar module, which didn’t go to the moon after all, and they reentered the Earth’s atmosphere in the most incredible display of scientific and technical achievement, but as I said, also of courage. And as they entered into the atmosphere, they had to do so without the heat shield that would have been on the command module. There was a huge question as to whether or not the astronauts would have survived all the way back to Earth’s atmosphere, only to be annihilated as they came for a landing. Furthermore, as the world watched, there was an excruciating reality of a delay of a minute and a half from when it was believed that transmission from the lunar module would happen once again.

I was a 10-year-old boy in Florida at the time and I had witnessed the launch of Apollo 13. We thought it was going to be yet another American successful venture to the moon. I can remember the urgency with which Americans and others around the world were praying for the safe return of those three astronauts. I can remember that horrifying delay, and then I can remember those fuzzy television black and white pictures that showed those three beautiful parachutes opening over the Pacific.

Jim Lovell, the now famous commander of Apollo 13, is still living at age 92, and the Associated Press said that Lovell had given them an interview from his Lake Forest, Illinois home.


That was the word that Lovell used to describe the despair and the hope of those astronauts. The big question as he said, “How do we get home?” That’s the big question for all of us, isn’t it? How do we get home? The Apollo 13 story is an amazing story of three astronauts who got home, back home, thanks be to God, to planet Earth.

But we as Christians understand there’s a deeper sense in which the big question is, “How do we get home?” And the answer to that can’t come by means of any human technology. It comes only by the gospel of Jesus Christ. The big question remains, “How do we get home?” And only the gospel of Jesus Christ provides the answer.

Thanks for listening to The Briefing.

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R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

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