As the pandemic enters its third year, questions about COVID-19’s origins appear increasingly distant, but if we are to forestall another coronavirus pandemic in the 21st century, understanding the causes of the current one is imperative.
COVID-19 has caused more than 5.4 million deaths, but that is just the beginning. The toll of the pandemic includes increased rates of obesity, unemployment, poverty, depression, alcoholism, homicide, domestic violence, divorce and suicide. As the Omicron variant of SARS-CoV-2 fuels record infection rates and disrupts economies in many parts of the world, pandemic fatigue is morphing into pandemic burnout.
Our chances of eliminating COVID-19 appear increasingly remote. However, as we attempt to figure out how to live with the virus, we must also identify the missteps — accidental and otherwise — that led us here. That means, first and foremost, turning a critical eye toward China.
It is well known that Chinese President Xi Jinping’s (習近平) regime censored early reports that a new, deadly coronavirus had emerged in Wuhan and hid evidence of human-to-human transmission, thereby enabling a local outbreak to become a global calamity. What remains to be determined is whether COVID-19 emerged naturally in wildlife or was leaked from a laboratory — namely, the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV).
Here, too, China has embraced obfuscation rather than transparency. Xi’s regime has blocked an independent forensic inquiry into COVID-19’s origins, arguing that any such investigation amounts to “origin-tracing terrorism.” After Australia called for a probe into China’s handling of the outbreak, Xi’s government punished it with a raft of informal sanctions.
China had help covering up its bad behavior. Early in the pandemic, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus parroted the Chinese government’s talking points and praised its handling of the outbreak. Instead of verifying China’s claims, the WHO broadcast them to the world.
Far from condemning this failure of global health leadership, France and Germany took the lead in nominating Tedros for a second term at the WHO’s helm, and the US decided not to field a candidate to challenge him. Having run unopposed, Tedros is to lead this critical institution for another five years.
The West also helped China to divert attention from the lab-leak hypothesis. Not only are several labs in the West engaged in research to engineer super-viruses, but Western governments have ties to the WIV — a French-designed institute where US-funded research has been carried out. The US National Institutes of Health and the US Agency for International Development have issued grants to EcoHealth Alliance, a group studying bat coronaviruses in collaboration with WIV researchers.
The US government has not disclosed the full extent of its funding to WIV projects, let alone explained why its agencies would fund research at an institution linked to the Chinese military. A US Department of State fact sheet issued one year ago proclaimed that the US has “a right and obligation to determine whether any of our research funding was diverted to secret Chinese military projects at the WIV.”
Why was that risk deemed acceptable in the first place?
The conflicts of interest surrounding the lab-leak hypothesis distorted early discussions about the origins of COVID-19. A letter published in The Lancet in February 2020, signed by a group of virologists, is a case in point. The letter “strongly condemned” those “suggesting that COVID-19 did not have a natural origin.” The message was clear: to lend any credence to the possibility of a lab leak would be unscientific.
The letter turned out to be organized and drafted by the president of EcoHealth Alliance. However, by the time the conflict of interest came to light, it was too late. Major US news organizations and social-media giants were treating the lab-leak hypothesis as a baseless conspiracy theory, with Facebook, Instagram and Twitter censoring references to a lab accident.
It should always have been clear that the lab-leak hypothesis had merit — a 2004 outbreak of SARS in Beijing resulted from such a leak. Instead, frank discussion of the possibility was suppressed until May last year, when US President Joe Biden announced that a lab accident was one of “two likely scenarios” on which US intelligence agencies would focus as they carried out a 90-day inquiry into the pandemic’s origins.
By then, Chinese authorities had plenty of time to cover whatever tracks there might have been. Add its unwillingness to cooperate in a probe and it should not be surprising that the inquiry’s results were inconclusive.
However, the exercise was apparently enough to convince Biden to take the pressure off China. Despite pledging to “do everything [possible] to trace the roots of this outbreak that has caused so much pain and death around the world,” he did not extend the intelligence inquiry, and he has since avoided any reference to the pandemic’s origins.
Xi announced in September last year that Chinese labs handling deadly pathogens would face closer scrutiny, but he continues to denounce any insinuation that COVID-19 could have been leaked. Meanwhile, China is profiting from the pandemic as exports are surging. The country has capitalized on the crisis to advance its geopolitical interests, including by stepping up its territorial aggression, from East Asia to the Himalayas.
However, a reckoning could yet come. Nearly three-quarters of people in the US believe that it is “likely” that COVID-19 was leaked from the WIV. Moreover, as China’s neo-imperialist ambitions have become clear, unfavorable views of China have reached record highs in many advanced economies. If world leaders want a mandate to pursue further inquiries into the pandemic’s origins, it is safe to say they have it.
This is not the first made-in-China pandemic — the country also produced SARS in 2003, Asian flu in 1957, Hong Kong flu in 1968 and Russian flu in 1977. If the world keeps letting China off the hook, it might not be the last.
Brahma Chellaney is a professor of strategic studies at the New Delhi-based Center for Policy Research and a fellow at the Robert Bosch Academy in Berlin.
Copyright: Project Syndicate
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