Commentary on Political Economy

Saturday, 19 June 2021

 The quest to discover the pandemic’s origins shouldn’t be put on hold because China won’t budge




Staff move bio-waste containers at the Wuhan Medical Treatment Center in Wuhan, China, on Jan. 22, 2020. (Dake Kang/AP)
Opinion by the Editorial Board
June 18 at 1:42 am Taiwan Time
WHEN THE leaders of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine speak, it is worth listening. On Tuesday, they issued a joint call for an investigation into the origin of the global pandemic that has taken more than 600,000 lives in the United States and over 3.8 million worldwide. These seasoned experts have it right. The world needs to know how the pandemic began in order to prepare for the next one. But China stands in the way.
The statement by the presidents, Marcia McNutt of the National Academy of Sciences, John L. Anderson of the National Academy of Engineering and Victor J. Dzau of the National Academy of Medicine, puts a needed emphasis on empirical discovery. They speak out against a surge of “misinformation, unsubstantiated claims, and personal attacks on scientists” that is “sowing public confusion” and could undermine trust in science and scientists. “Science is our best tool” to figure out how the coronavirus pandemic got started, they say. “We urge that investigations into the origins of SARS-CoV-2 and COVID-19 be guided by scientific principles, including reliance on verifiable data, reproducibility, objectivity, transparency, peer review, international collaboration, minimizing conflicts of interest, findings based on evidence, and clarity regarding uncertainties.” They note that there are multiple scenarios that could plausibly explain the virus origins, including a zoonotic spillover or laboratory accident, but caution that scientists need to evaluate them with “credible data.”
President Biden and the other leaders of the Group of Seven democracies called on Sunday for “a timely, transparent, expert-led, and science-based” Phase 2 study convened by the World Health Organization, as Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus promised in March. The first-phase study reached an impasse because of recalcitrance from China, and the WHO may lack the clout to make further progress.
The leaders of the National Academies acknowledge: “Data accessibility, transparency, and full cooperation from China . . . will be essential for a proper and thorough investigation.” But China has not been forthcoming. It has steadfastly denied that the Wuhan Institute of Virology, which was carrying out risky experiments on bat coronaviruses, could have been the source of an inadvertent leak. The laboratory’s database was taken offline and its research kept under wraps. Meanwhile, Chinese government officials have pointed to a possible virus origin beyond China’s borders, perhaps on imported frozen food packaging. A hunt by China for a zoonotic source has so far come up empty-handed; more than 80,000 wildlife, livestock and poultry samples were checked for the virus before and after the outbreak, and none tested positive.
China’s whole approach has been: Nothing to see here. If China refuses to budge, the proper response is to launch an investigation anyway, with international cooperation, based on sound science and dogged forensic methods. Valuable sources and important evidence may be waiting to be unearthed. Mr. Biden’s requested U.S. intelligence report is due at summer’s end, too. The quest to discover the virus origins may be arduous, but it shouldn’t be put on hold just because China refuses.

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