In its long history, the Chinese nation had suffered and survived from numerous catastrophic disasters like this ongoing pandemic. Knowing that its overall consequences are yet to be fully understood and the way forward is still uncertain, China understands almost by nature what would be the appropriate manner to handle the COVID-19 pandemic both internally and globally. This is why China has called the WHO for pooling the efforts of all as the top priority, to curb the virus spreading and vaccinate the world, which require enhanced solidarity among its member states.
During the virtual Aspen Security Forum on August 3rd 2021, PM Lee Hsien Loong of Singapore said: “We had all hoped that the pandemic would prompt countries to work more closely together, just as after 9-11, when there was a period of solidarity and mutual support against extremist terrorism. But unfortunately with COVID-19, it has been quite different.” I think he said what many of us have in mind.
Unfortunately and probably unwillingly, the WHO has seemingly retreated from the conclusions of its previous phase I virustracing that has been widely recognized by the global scientific community, and rushed into a less well formulated phase II investigation which puts forward a dubious Wuhan lab leak hypothesis. The decision could drive a new wedge into global solidarity. It has sparked a great deal of uproar and further widened the divide among the WHO member states, which could be deadly to the world at this moment. You don’t have to be a geopolitical expert to tell who and what is behind the scene, but still there are some essential questions that should be raised.
Is There a Whistle Blower? Yes, China.
It is common sense that the place where the first case is reported is not necessarily be the place where a virus first originates. Therefore the country which first identified the virus is not necessary the one where the virus originally came into being.
Many world-renowned scientists believe that China is merely the first country competent enough to recognize and identify the virus and report it to WHO at the earliest time. If there was a whistle-blower of the pandemic, it was China. China will not resign itself to blames for doing the right thing, not to mention that blame-shifting never encourages international cooperation and solidarity.
Accidental Lab Leak, Or the Dark Side of Nature: A Tale of Two Theories
Interestingly the debate has grown ever more heated in recent months as the White House in May this year gave intelligence agencies, instead of the scientific community, a deadline within 90 days to evaluate the lab accident versus natural origin theories, especially whether it was a “lab leak” in Wuhan, China. Now, as the deadline drew nearer, and no clear evidence has been found for either side, the U.S. intelligence community started to gear up their efforts scrambling for an answer, and intended to release the report by the end of this month, turning a scientific task to a political game.
Study of virus origins is a scientific task that will not be solved with an arrogant executive order. It is a myth, if not a joke, to think one can have a "definitive conclusion" on a complicated scientific issue in 90 days. US intelligence agencies are neither more equipped to nor more capable of doing research than the WHO on this front. What can we expect from the US intelligence? Either a slanderous report that serves the US' anti-China agenda out of a political drive, or an awkward remedy of the US government's already-marred reputation by stepping back in front of mainstream opposition from scientists.
It will not surprise me if I see that they will make up misleading conclusions, produce evidence of China’s obstruction of the origin-tracing investigations, and raise suspicions on virus-leaking from the Wuhan Institute of Virology. Informed sources say that they even undertake to launch a third-party independent investigation outside the framework of the WHO with allies, and exert pressure on more governments, scientific research institutes, NGOs and individuals to participate.
Informed sources have also revealed that high-level officials of the US government believe that, although there is not any tangible progress in their “origin-tracing investigation” yet, the investigation is not the purpose and that launching the investigation itself bears its meaning. A continuous hyping of the issue can exhaust China’s diplomatic resources, increase US’s leverage towards China and hedge against China’s influence.
Tracing It First? No, Curbing It First!
Undoubtedly, origin tracing matters if we hope to prevent the recurrence of such a major disease outbreak. At the same time, everybody should know the difficulty of tracking down the origins of a virus which involves a combination of extensive field epidemiology survey, thorough lab testing and quite a bit of luck. In order to conduct such a scrutiny for a certain virus, you have to be patient. The origin of HIV was not clear until 20 years after its first appearance in the world. Scientists still don’t know the origin of Ebola, even though it has caused periodic epidemics since the 1970s. Some scientists have even been wondering whether the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic might forever remain elusive.
According to the WHO, confirmed cases of COVID-19 have amounted to 200 million, its death toll over 4 million, but still, less than 1% of the population has been vaccinated in all developing countries. Looking at these bleak numbers, we should think about what tasks shall our efforts be concentrated on. This question needs to be solved because it has important consequences on the risk/benefit balance of our effort. China Opposes Virus Origin Tracing? Not At All!
Like other countries, China is a victim of the COVID-19 outbreak and hopes to find the source of the virus and stem the transmission of the epidemics as soon as possible. China has all along supported and will continue to take part in science-based origins tracing efforts.
In fact, China has been cooperating with the WHO on virus origin-tracing in an open and transparent manner. While undertaking the daunting task of epidemic prevention and control at home, China has twice invited WHO expert teams for origin-tracing study, during which international and Chinese experts jointly made field visits, analyzed tons of data, issued joint mission reports, and ruled out a lab connection for COVID-19 in Wuhan. The studies have shown that a lab leak in Wuhan is “extremely unlikely”, a conclusion now widely recognized by the international scientific community.
The report also recommended conducting further research on earlier cases with similar symptoms globally and further investigating cold chains and frozen foods that possibly have carried the virus. Since the studies are done with the direct involvement and under the close supervision of the WHO, the conclusions and recommendations of the report should be respected and fully reflected in the next step work. However, not before long and obviously under certain pressure, the WHO Secretariat proposed a new round of investigation in China and again brought up the lab leak hypothesis. This is totally derailed from its previous path and pace.
China believes that locating the origin of the virus could give us clues to understand and predict future pandemics, whereas the COVID-19 origin-tracing is a serious scientific issue that should not be manipulated by politics, and should not be used to blame a certain country, let alone to split the international community. China opposes using intelligence means to carry out and politicize origin-tracing. In short, China supports an origin tracing plan that is fair and based on science but objects to the act of using it as a tool to play political games. Only when we unite can we truly defeat the virus.
“Lab Leak”? Ask Labs at Fort Detrick
Meanwhile, there are an increasing number of reports on the virus and the COVID-19 pandemic being spotted in various places around the world in the second half of 2019, and that the international community is highly concerned about the questions surrounding the biological labs at Fort Detrick and the real intentions of the US to establish 200-plus overseas bio-labs.
It is known to many that in the fall of 2019, before the outbreak of COVID-19, USAMRIID at Ford Detrick was temporarily shut down by the US CDC due to severe security incidents. Many comments on social media in the US posted in the first half of 2020 indicate that nearly more than 200 people in the US or countries having close ties with the US said people they know or they themselves had suspected infection of novel coronavirus as early as in November 2019, with COVID-19-like symptoms. And a mysterious and large-scale EVALI outbreak occurred in 2019 before COVID-19. Articles in mainstream international journals and media, such as the Lancet, show that the disease is very similar to COVID-19.
A Washington Post reporter having close ties with US intelligence agency said in an article published in June this year that the Congress questioned whether COVID-19 was already spreading during the 7th CISM Military World Games in Wuhan in October 2019, because some of the Western athletes said they later got sick with COVID-19-like symptoms. There are also reports in the UK that some of the French athletes who attended the Wuhan Military World Games said they had strange illness.
It also reminds us of an article published in Vanity Fair on June 3rd this year, which said that former acting assistant secretary of the US State Department claimed that staff warned leaders within his bureau "not to pursue an investigation into the origin of COVID-19" because it would "'open a can of worms' if it continued." It begs the question: What is the US hiding? If the US is obsessed with the "lab leak" theory, then it should invite international experts to conduct origins research in the US twice in an above-board manner just like China did.
Do they really care about the origin-tracing of the virus or just want to divert attention of the world from skeletons in their own closet, for example, the two epidemic exercises conducted by the US government from January to August in 2019, the earlier-and-deadlier-than-usual “influenza season” in the US that year, the E-Cigarette Pneumonia, or EVALI, outbreak in Wisconsin in July the same year, the reports of two retirement communities near Fort Detrick contracting “unknown respiratory diseases” almost the same time, and the hidden medical records of the five sick Americans who went to the Wuhan Military World Games in Wuhan two months before the first case was reported in the same city, just to name a few? Those are crucial clues to these puzzles, and the whole world demands an answer from the US.
Try To Play Another “Washing Powder Game” with China? No Way!
Using origin-tracing as a political tool against China reminds me of a similar scene nearly 20 years ago, when the US was hyping up its assertion that Iraq possessed "weapons of mass destruction" to prepare the ground for the Iraq War. Its modus operandi remains unchanged for all these years, which is to disregard views of authoritative international institutions, find someone to blame, and try to mislead the public with allegations without factual basis.
Interestingly, according to some US media reports, the person who first came up with the Wuhan lab leak claim is Michael Gordon, the same one who authored the "Aluminium Tube Story" or “Weapon of Mass Destruction” story on Iraq in September 2002. Given the fact that the US waged war on Iraq with a fictional WMD threat by showing a vial of “washing powder” in UN Security Council in order to realize its geopolitical goals, we cannot help but ask, what is it up to this time by pressing the utterly unproven "lab leak theory" in Wuhan?
Regrettably, some politicians in the United States have blatantly engaged in political manoeuvering on the issue of origin. They have a clear end-goal of diverting attention from the country's pandemic response failures and casting blame on China, which is inherently wrong. Such political tricks won't change the fact that over 600,000 lives were lost in the US due to politicians who have ignored science and politicized their anti-pandemic response.
I’ve noticed that, on advancing the next origin-tracing, the WHO issued a new statement on August 12 saying that WHO's priority is for scientists to build on the first phase of studies and implement the recommendations outlined in the March 2021 report; searching for the origins of any novel pathogen is a difficult process, which is based on science, and takes collaboration, dedication and time; and the search for the origins of SARS-CoV-2 should not be an exercise in attributing blame, finger-pointing or political point-scoring.
In July this year, President Xi Jinping pointed out in his speech at the APEC Informal Economic Leaders' Retreat: “the pandemic proves once again that we live in one global village, where countries stand to rise and fall together.” The international community should all be vigilant and reject any selfish behavior at the expense of the welfare, life and health of people. It is time to turn down the heat of the rhetoric and turn up the light of scientific inquiry to make positive contribution to the humanity's early victory over the pandemic, and to better prepare for the next challenge, whenever it comes, wherever it begins and whatever form it takes.
The writer is the Chinese Ambassador to Bangladesh