China should not veto a pandemic origins inquiry

Published by The i paper (26th July, 2021)

Just imagine if a strange new virus emerged suddenly in Salisbury, with residents of the medieval Wiltshire town starting to cough, develop high fevers and die. Soon the hospital wards are over-flowing with sick patients, scores of doctors and nurses develop the symptoms, then the disease starts to crop up in other countries. Within weeks the entire planet is engulfed by a pandemic with millions dying and economic chaos. Finally it emerges scientists at nearby Porton Down had been carrying out risky research on similar diseases from bats, working on samples taken from their roosting sites hundreds of miles away in the Scottish highlands.

There would be justified suspicions over the secretive laboratory, especially given its defence links. We would expect intense media and political scrutiny since we live in a democracy, even if many prominent scientists argued forcefully that zoonotic diseases tend to cross over naturally from animals. But just think about the furore if it also emerged Porton Down had taken offline a database containing its samples and viral sequences weeks before the deaths began. And that the government lied about dates of early cases, forced doctors to stay silent on the outbreak, threatened to prosecute experts for espionage if they shared information, and failed to pass critical information to global health authorities.

All these events took place in China in this pandemic – except that Covid-19 erupted in Wuhan, home to its highest-security laboratory that happens to be the biggest bat coronavirus research unit in Asia and to have had known safety issues. The big difference, of course, is that the disease emerged in a repressive dictatorship rather than a shambolic democracy. But even now Beijing is doing everything possible to frustrate independent investigations into its origins, despite the critical importance of finding the cause so we can all guard against future disease outbreaks.

Last week the World Health Organisation, struggling to regain credibility after letting Beijing control initial investigations, proposed a second phase of studies in China to include audits of laboratories and markets in Wuhan. The beleaguered director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus chose his words carefully as he called for transparency while pleading for this issue not to be clouded by politics. He wants both main theories for how the pandemic began – natural spillover from animals or some sort of laboratory incident – to be probed, which makes perfect sense since there remains no overwhelming evidence for either scenario. 

Yet China reacted with hostility – just as it did when Australia first proposed a full investigation of the origins 15 months ago only to be met with a retaliatory trade war. It does not take Hercule Poirot to suspect something suspicious in the Communist regime’s response. Its latest rebuttal was a masterclass in Orwellian doublespeak as Zhao Lijian, a foreign office spokesman, pontificated that “origins study is a serious scientific issue that requires cooperation of global scientists” but claimed they were worried about “politicisation” and sought to “safeguard the sound atmosphere of global anti-epidemic cooperation”. Other senior officials simply lied, saying Wuhan labs had never conducted ‘gain-of-function’ research that modifies viruses to make them more infectious despite strong evidence to the contrary. 

Behind China’s denials and deceptions, battle lines are being drawn for a struggle fast turning into a new Cold War frontline. The US, backed by Britain and the European Union, criticised the previous WHO study that allowed Beijing to vet participants, then parroted its risible line that a lab leak was less likely than the virus being imported to Wuhan on a slab of frozen pangolin. President Joe Biden agrees with his loud-mouthed Republican predecessor that the virus could have leaked from a lab, ordering intelligence agencies to redouble efforts to discover the truth and report back fast. Despite disgraceful efforts of the scientific establishment to stifle discussion of lab ‘conspiracy theories’, there is growing acceptance among experts that both theories are viable and merit serious investigation.

Yet China is becoming more aggressive in its efforts to fend off unfettered inquiries. It used its global muscle to line up more than 50 countries supporting its stance to the WHO – ranging from heavyweight allies such as Russia through to minnows such as Sao Tome and the Solomon Islands – by using the sort of high-pressure tactics that led many nations to stop supporting Taiwan. Despite dismissing the lab leak idea as a rumour that runs counter to common sense and science, its state-run media calls for the WHO to investigate Fort Detrick, a US military laboratory in Maryland, as potential source of the outbreak – backed by a letter signed by five million citizens.

These inquiries must not be stopped by China’s stonewalling and smokescreens – nor even by the increasingly ugly mood inside China towards foreign journalists, whipped up by a hardline nationalist regime. The issues are too important to be ignored. Clearly it would be best to have Chinese co-operation with full access to all records. Nevertheless the WHO must press on – even if it has been exposed as a hopelessly weak body, which needs reinforcement with stronger health architecture as we enter an era of threats from synthetic biology. But the US and its allies must also step up efforts to gather evidence from scientists, spies and whistleblowers – especially Britain, which has been dragging its feet to the alarm of Paris and Washington.

Ultimately President Xi Jinping cannot be permitted to have power of veto over probing this devastating pandemic. His deceitful regime has demonstrated shocking irresponsibility from the start with actions that inflamed the disease’s impact. We need to redouble efforts to establish the truth about the origins- and if China refuses to play ball, it should be treated as a pariah state despite its size and strength. This virus is efficient and lethal but has relatively low mortality rates. Next time could be far worse, whether it breaks out in Salisbury or Shanghai. As Mao Zedong said, passivity can be fatal.

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