How virus origins tracing turns into a political witch-hunt
Published: Aug 23, 2021 05:18 PM Updated: Aug 23, 2021 09:18 PM
Illustration: Liu Rui/GT

Illustration: Liu Rui/GT

The WHO released an official report in March 2021 that concluded scientists' findings from the first phase of the COVID-19 virus origin-tracing in China. The conclusions include that intermediate hosts are "very to highly likely" to be the source that passed the virus to human beings, while a "lab leak" is ranked as "extremely unlikely." When we thought we were finally getting some clarity on the origins of COVID-19 after the WHO published the official report, the US government, without giving much credit to the progress made by scientists in the report, claimed in high profile that they will deploy their own intelligence forces to conduct an origin-tracing investigation that targets the Wuhan lab and hunts for origins of the virus. With the "lab leak theory" being hyped by the US administration, the origin-tracing study is now taking a dramatic direction and becoming a political witch-hunt that puts scientific findings at risk.

Inconsistency in the whole process

In the WHO origin-tracing report, scientists of the independent panel concluded that aspects including intermediate hosts should be the focus of further research in the next stage, and the origin-tracing needs to be conducted worldwide since early outbreaks of COVID-19 were scattered in different parts of the world. Logically, we should build upon the progress that the first-stage report has made and dig deeper into the possible hosts as well as the data of countries where COVID-19 antibodies are found in blood samples that were collected at the same time when the Wuhan outbreak has just started. 

Strange enough, the US government seems to find scientists' conclusions untrustworthy and is determined to tie the origins of the virus to the Wuhan lab. While equaling "highly unlikely" to "not ruled out," the US is making a "lab leak" story the top priority on the list and completely pushed aside researching on the highly likely sources of the virus identified from the prior WHO report such as intermediate hosts and other animal-related sources. 

It is inexplicable how such a decision was made, and why the US administration believes that their intelligence forces will outdo the work of scientists on a study that requires highly rigorous scientific processes. What's also bizarre is that in earlier July, the WHO actually once released an outline for the next phase of origin-tracing which also prioritized further looking into the lab leak theory and gave minimal details about researching on the areas that the first-stage report had recommended. Immediately after the outline was made public, more than 80 member states of the WHO expressed their concern on the issue being politically manipulated and urged the organization to stick to science when it comes to the origin-tracing. The WHO went quiet about the outline ever since. It's worth noticing that the outline released in July did not go through an open consultation process with WHO member states this time but was devised behind closed doors. It just makes you ask: Who were the people, or power, in the room that decided the second-phase plan should focus on pressuring China to confess a lab leak? Why were most member states not involved? And why is the research starting over?

If there's now only political motives to smear China behind this whole search and no more, then it is costing all of us the truth, and diverting us from truly understanding the pandemic and be better prepared next time.

Big holes in the plan

As we progress with the origin-tracing study, we also should be asking why this is not a global search yet. There are many cases across the US and Europe now where blood, urine and other medical samples collected from patients which can date back to September 2019 have tested positive for COVID-19 or its antibodies. These all happened earlier than the Wuhan outbreak and are now pointing out that China may not be the actual site of the initial outbreak, though being the earliest location that became alerted of increasing COVID-19 cases. The March WHO origin-tracing report also mentioned the necessity to carry out the tracing research worldwide. This is particular important due to how easily the virus has travelled with imported food through cold-chain transportation since the beginning of the pandemic. Essentially, how can we possibly know if we are not missing origins of the outbreak if the tracing does not go to countries that had COVID-19 cases simultaneous to or earlier than the outbreak in Wuhan?

However, none of these points seem to be of concern to the origin-tracing plan that the US administration is pushing for. With these big holes in the current origin-tracing proposals, they just seem to be missing the whole point. 

What exactly is our goal for the origin-tracing?

The origin-tracing is supposed to help us know how the virus came into impacting us, so that we have more measures for preventing and preparing for similar situations in the future. Saving lives, and having a higher chance of winning the next time we encounter a challenge like this is the goal. 

However, with the more and more dramatic development of the origin-tracing process, the mentality of some countries and politicians have clearly changed into finding someone to blame instead of focusing on doing better in preventing and defeating pandemics. The origin-tracing really has become a blame game when US politicians began raging to pass bills that "ask China for compensation" - we are seeing a phenomenon we've never seen before. In the past, when pandemics or highly contagious diseases such as AIDS, Zika, Ebola and MERS occurred in the world, countries, governments and international organizations focused on handling the issue and cooperating internationally to save lives. But when COVID-19 hit, the "lab leak theory" suddenly became so widespread as if out of all past epidemics and pandemics that happened worldwide, COVID-19 was suddenly engineered by the country where an outbreak happened; whereas all past pandemics had "just occurred," even when scientists have concluded this latter theory to be extremely unlikely. Even worse, the claim is targeting China by stigmatizing a whole country and its people when they themselves suffered so much and fought so hard to recover from the impact of the virus. It's pathetic how we've got here.

The truth is, nothing can compensate for the disastrous results of inaction and lack of preparedness and prevention measures. Many countries in the world had months to prepare and had the advantage of at least knowing that they are dealing with a type of highly contagious corona virus after China was hit by an unknown wave of respiratory pandemic. US federal agencies even conducted a mock public health drill named "Crimson Contagion" in August 2019 that somehow coincidentally predicted an almost identical scenario - a deadly pandemic began in China and quickly spread to other parts of the world. But in the end, we are left with studies telling us that countries could have done better. The Brookings Institution found through its research that 400,000 deaths could have been avoided with a better response by the US. Sadly, for those pressing China to confess a lab leak, origin-tracing of the virus is being used as a façade to hide behind the real issues here.

Let's face it - as much as some may be eager to find that the pandemic can be traced back to a single source to fault on, the origin is not the reason why the pandemic spread worldwide. Failed prevention and control measures, negligence in limiting international travelling, and lukewarm preparedness is the true reason. 

Failing to have efficient plans has already and will continue to cost us dearly, in the face of any new pandemic.

A member of the Frederick Police Department Special Response Team peers out of a minivan before the team entered Fort Detrick on April 6. Photo: VCG

A member of the Frederick Police Department Special Response Team peers out of a minivan before the team entered Fort Detrick on April 6. Photo: VCG

Lies continue to create more confusion and chaos

There was wide coverage of how three researchers at the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) actually contracted the virus and got hospitalized. However, after the WIV denied the claim and asked the press that published the report to clarify who these three people are, the question sunk into water. The huge amount of false information, unverified claims and frankly, lies being thrown around the origin of the virus only adds to the chaos around the facts and truth that we are trying to find, making the origin-tracing almost impossibly difficult. 

Some comments supporting the further search for possibilities of a lab leak say that it requires further investigation because China probably destroyed the evidence - but it's the same as accusing someone of being guilty and backing that argument with "but of course the suspect has destroyed all evidence." If we go down this route, we are choosing to falsify a conspiracy theory only to get trapped more deeply in the sticky web of it. 

However, whether China gets caught up in the conspiracy theory or not, one thing is clear: Other places with early outbreaks and biology laboratories with highly questionable safety incidents like the Fort Detrick in the US aren't being investigated at all. 

And whether Western powers behind the current lab-leak storytelling will continue its strategy to contain China by using the origin-tracing of COVID-19 or not, people worldwide deserve health and safety, and answers about how we can better prepare for and fight against pandemics, not a political roadshow that uses our chance for truth and answers for power gains.  

We've seen too much. If there's no real intent for scientific conclusions behind all this, at least let the political will focus on meaningful efforts, not more witch-hunting that distracts us from bringing health back to our communities again.

The author is a current affairs commentator. opinion@globaltimes.com.cn 

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