Commentary on Political Economy

Wednesday, 29 July 2020

How to hold Beijing accountable for virus

This aerial view shows the P4 laboratory on the campus of the Wuhan Institute of Virology in Wuhan in China's central Hubei province. Picture: AFP
This aerial view shows the P4 laboratory on the campus of the Wuhan Institute of Virology in Wuhan in China's central Hubei province. Picture: AFP
If a country accidentally launched a nuclear missile killing more than 650,000 people, world leaders would at least demand a comprehensive and immediate investigation into what happened to make sure it didn’t occur again.
But as evidence grows that the equally deadly COVID-19 pandemic may stem from a Wuhan virology lab’s accidental leak followed by a Chinese government cover-up, most politicians across the globe have been strangely silent. Unless policy makers understand the novel coronavirus’s origins, the world remains vulnerable to an even deadlier pandemic in the future.
The closest known relative to SARS-CoV-2 is a virus sampled by Chinese researchers from six miners infected while working in a bat-infested cave in southern China in 2012. These miners developed symptoms we now associate with COVID-19. Half of them died. These viral samples were then taken to the Wuhan Institute of Virology — the only facility in China that’s a biosafety Level 4 laboratory, the highest possible safety designation. The Level 4 designation is reserved for facilities dealing with the most dangerous pathogens. Wuhan is more than 1,000 miles north of Yunnan province, where the cave is located.

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If the virus jumped to humans through a series of human-animal encounters in the wild or in wet markets, as Beijing has claimed, we would likely have seen evidence of people being infected elsewhere in China before the Wuhan outbreak. We have not.
The alternative explanation, a lab escape, is far more plausible. We know the Wuhan Institute of Virology was using controversial “gain of function” techniques to make viruses more virulent for research purposes. A confidential 2018 State Department cable released this month highlighting the lab’s alarming safety record should heighten our concern.
Suggesting that an outbreak of a deadly bat coronavirus coincidentally occurred near the only level 4 virology institute in all of China — which happened to be studying the closest known relative of that exact virus — strains credulity.
Above all, China’s extensive cover-up raises red flags. In the critical first weeks after the initial outbreak, Beijing actively suppressed essential information and prevented World Health Organisation investigators from entering the country while samples were destroyed. When a courageous Chinese biologist posted the sequenced genome of the virus online, his lab was immediately shut “for rectification.” The Chinese government has forbidden scientists to discuss publicly the origins of the pandemic. Citizen journalists investigating the issue have disappeared. In the words of a European Union report that were controversially later removed from the final version, “China has continued to run a global disinformation campaign to deflect blame for the outbreak of the pandemic”.
In May, 120 countries represented in the World Health Assembly agreed to an “impartial, independent and comprehensive evaluation” to “review experience gained and lessons learned from the WHO-co-ordinated international health response to COVID-19”.
This strange and potentially restrictive wording represented a compromise allowing Beijing enough wiggle room to avoid any serious investigation. Chinese President Xi Jinping made this intransigence even clearer by stating the investigation should only begin after the pandemic is contained. Although a WHO advance-planning team left for China on July 10, it is highly likely that any international investigation will be significantly curtailed by the Chinese government.
It’s easy to understand why Beijing would not be thrilled about a deep investigation into the origins of the pandemic. If the deaths of so many people around the world were traced to a lab accident and cover-up, the consequences within China and globally would be monumental.
It is harder to understand why so many people outside China are stepping so gingerly.
Part of this can be explained by China’s outsize global influence. When Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison suggested an investigation, Beijing immediately punished Australia with a reduction in trade.
With China’s economy rebounding while the US is struggling, many countries fear upsetting the Chinese government could endanger their economic future or make it harder to source critical medical supplies. Many progressives also seem to be censoring themselves for fear of legitimising what they see as President Trump’s effort to blame China and the WHO to deflect criticism of America’s own failures.
But not getting to the bottom of this crisis would be the height of absurdity. Too much is at stake.
To ensure everyone’s safety, the WHO and outside investigators must be empowered to explore all relevant questions about the origins of the pandemic without limits. This comprehensive forensic investigation must include full access to all of the scientists, biological samples, laboratory records and other materials from the Wuhan virology institutes and other relevant Chinese organisations.
Denying that access should be considered an admission of guilt by Beijing.
But there is an even better way forward. By working together to fully understand the origins of the pandemic, how we failed to respond appropriately, and what we must do to prevent the next crisis, we can build a safer world for everyone.
Jamie Metzl served in the National Security Council and State Department in the Clinton administration. He is a senior fellow of the Atlantic Council, a member of the WHO international advisory committee on human genome editing, and author of Hacking Darwin: Genetic Engineering and the Future of Humanity.

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