The WHO Director Makes an About-Face on China’s COVID Narrative

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World Health Organization (WHO) Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus waits for the arrival of Swiss Interior and Health Minister Alain Berset at the WHO headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland May 24, 2021. (Laurent Gillieron/Reuters)

On the menu today: World Health Organization director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus tells reporters that lab accidents are common; the media obsessively discusses Donald Trump as if he were still president; the Biden administration starts telling Facebook which posts it deems disinformation; and an interview with thriller author Brad Thor — and why 2021 is the summer of Black Ice.

WHO’s Tedros: Lab Accidents Are Common

If you read this newsletter, there’s a good chance that, at minimum, you find the World Health Organization’s credulity about China’s assessments of the coronavirus outbreak early in the pandemic to be an egregiously consequential misjudgment, and that you will have a hard time trusting the WHO moving forward. In fact, that’s probably the mildest and nicest way to describe how you feel about WHO.

Every now and then, WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus makes a statement that suggests he realizes how colossally his organization messed up by trusting Beijing’s assessments. The world suffered greatly from COVID-19, WHO now looks like a bunch of gullible fools who loused up their single most important duty, and this is what Tedros, long after he passes on, is going to be remembered for.

And maybe Dr. Tedros isn’t willing to play along with China’s preferred narrative any longer.

In a rare departure from his usual deference to powerful member countries, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said getting access to raw data had been a challenge for the international team that traveled to China earlier this year to investigate the source of COVID-19. The first human cases were identified in the Chinese city of Wuhan.

Tedros told reporters that the U.N. health agency based in Geneva is “asking actually China to be transparent, open and cooperate, especially on the information, raw data that we asked for at the early days of the pandemic.”

He said there had been a “premature push” to rule out the theory that the virus might have escaped from a Chinese government lab in Wuhan — undermining WHO’s own March report, which concluded that a laboratory leak was “extremely unlikely.”

“I was a lab technician myself, I’m an immunologist, and I have worked in the lab, and lab accidents happen,” Tedros said. “It’s common.”

Most critics of the WHO will find this to be too little, too late. But future leaders of the WHO, as well as other international organizations, might be taking notes from Tedros’s about-face and his criticism of his own organization’s early conclusions. Beijing lied to the WHO, and it left the WHO holding the bag.

As a wise man once said, “Fool me once, shame on, shame on you. And fool me — we can’t get fooled again.”

Wait, Who’s the President Again?

If you check out Memeorandum — usually a good measuring stick of which stories from mainstream-media institutions are generating the biggest response and discussion — the top stories today include the Maricopa County vote review in Arizona, driven by Trump’s claims he won the state; chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley’s clash with Trump about Iran in the final days of his presidency; Matt Lewis’s ripping Kevin McCarthy for being a Trump lapdog; a Daily Beast report that Roger Stone’s new phone is made in China; the New York Times review of two new books about Trump’s presidency; and an Arc Digital column warning Democrats that “it’s prudent to think about how to avoid the next stage, an American version of the Nazis winning a plurality in parliamentary elections nine years after their failed putsch, and seizing power six months later.”

Somehow, as of this writing, a New York magazine column asking, “Is it finally time to begin calling Trumpism fascism?” hasn’t made the list. (I can hear what you’re saying: What do you mean begin? Some Democrats have been calling Trump supporters fascists since 2015!)

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Do you by any chance think the media misses Donald Trump? Do you think they’re eager to keep talking about him because he generates so much traffic and ratings and audience engagement? Do you think that, having learned nothing in the past five or six years, they keep trying to oppose him by giving him more and more attention and making him the centerpiece of every conversation?

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By the way, on that question of fascism, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said yesterday: “We’ve increased disinformation research and tracking within the Surgeon General’s office. We’re flagging problematic posts for Facebook that spread disinformation.” And Facebook is presumably then removing them. People argue about the definition of fascism all the time, but one critical element is the suppression of freedom of expression and dissent by the government and private institutions operating in tandem. It is much tougher to make the argument, “Stop treating this like government censorship, Facebook is a private company and private entity, it can decide what material is acceptable and what material should be removed,” when Facebook starts making those decisions based on communications from the federal government.

Why You’ll Want to Read Black Ice This Summer

A new thriller from Brad Thor has become as much a part of summer as Popsicles, wet-mop-to-the-face humidity, and fireflies — and Thor’s astonishing Black Ice, the 20th novel in the Scot Harvath series, does not disappoint. This is the kind of novel that you pick up just to get a sense of how it begins and before you know it, you’ve read 90 pages and don’t want to put it down.

Many of the first 17 books in the Harvath series featured a well-established rhythm: Somebody, somewhere in the world, is up to no good, and Harvath — an ex–Navy SEAL who has worked for the U.S. Secret Service and as a CIA contractor — and a small group of allies have to figure out the threat and stop it. It’s like 24 on a global stage. Then Backlash blew up that established rhythm, throwing a completely new and dire threat at the protagonist, “reminiscent of that Liam Neeson movie The Grey, and the classic The Fugitive, and some of Jack London’s classic survival-in-the-most-hostile-wilds stories,” as I wrote in a review. Last year’s aptly named Near Dark was another change-up, as the character grappled with the increasing psychological and physical toll of his ordeals and losses over the years.

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Black Ice finds Harvath in a better place, physically and mentally, and as welcome as the Backlash and Near Dark change-ups were, it’s good to see Thor returning to the questions of who in the world is out to harm innocent people and which menaces in the world aren’t always getting the attention they deserve. That sense of a subtle intelligence briefing mixed in among the gunfights and chases is a core component of the series.

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“When I get the question, where do I get my ideas, I usually answer, in the shower, or after my second bourbon,” Thor told me this week. “I’m a voracious consumer of news. I read three newspapers daily on my tablet, I’m reading a lot of online media, I have the TV going in the background. I’m always trying to look over the horizon to see what the next threats are. Where is an area that we’re not paying attention to, that we should be paying attention to? And I take a lot of people who are in the military, the intelligence community, the law enforcement community, the political world — I buy a lot of steak dinners. I take them to dinner, buy a pitcher of beer and ask, ‘What keeps you up at night? What are you frustrated with, that we’re not investing enough attention in?’ And that’s where a lot of good information comes from.”

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About what he’s aiming for, Thor says: “My job, first and foremost, is to entertain people — those short, crisp, cinematic chapters, make readers want to keep turning the pages. And if they’ve had a great white-knuckle thrill ride, I’ve done my job, and if they close the book, knowing a little bit more about why this particular issue is important to national security or how this agency runs, and why it’s important we pay attention to this, I’ve done my job as an American.”

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What keeps Brad Thor up at night?

“When we allow politics to get too deep into national security, that bothers me,” he says.

“When your agencies are united, when your allies are united, that’s when you’re stronger. Starting with Spymaster, I had turned my attention to the NATO alliance overseas. What had particularly sparked Spymaster was a study from the RAND Corporation.” (He’s referring to a study that ran simulations of Russia attempting to take over the Baltic states.) “Every time they ran the test, Russia won. They would switch the sides, of which generals were playing the Russians and which ones were playing the allies, and we and our allies never won. Russia won every single time. I tore into that study, how Russia would go for this island off Sweden to block the Baltic Sea. . . . If that’s what’s troubling our government, and a corporation like RAND, that’s just prime material for a thriller.”

About halfway through Black Ice, there’s an interlude where we get an extended tale of one of the older character’s exploits in Berlin during the Cold War. I asked Thor if he was tempted to turn that into a separate book.

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The Spy Who Came In from the Cold [by John le Carré] is one of my favorites,” Thor says. “That had always intrigued me, and readers had loved that character for so long. I had hinted at things he had done in the past, and I thought, this is a really good place to give readers a peek at going on an operation with him — a mini-story within the story. The infiltration into East Berlin, and the exfiltration are actually legit, those were done by three brothers. One brother got out of East Berlin, he went and got the other brother, and then they went and got the third brother out. I give an acknowledgment in the back of the book to their story. It’s incredible. I don’t know if it’s another novel, but it’s legitimate.”

ADDENDUM: This is the last Jim-written Morning Jolt until July 26. Alexandra DeSanctis will be writing it next week, and I’ve found that when she fills in for me, some people don’t even notice that I’ve been gone. Frankly, I cannot imagine a higher compliment for any writer.

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