The US still owes the world an explanation on COVID-19 origins tracing
Published: Jun 28, 2022 04:02 PM
Illustration: Liu Rui/GT

Illustration: Liu Rui/GT

On June 9, the Scientific Advisory Group on the Origins of Novel Pathogens (SAGO) released its preliminary report on COVID-19 origins tracing, noting that more data are required to make further studies. Till now, China has been the only country that has hosted more than once WHO expert groups to carry out joint COVID-19 origins tracing, and the only country that has provided multiple opportunities for its experts to share origins tracing progress with WHO experts. For China's part, it has done its best. As SAGO has highlighted the importance of conducting studies both in China and worldwide, the following points must be carefully addressed before moving the studies to the next stage. 

First, what was going on at Fort Detrick? As home to US Army Medical Research and Development Command, US Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases and the National Cancer Institute, Fort Detrick inherited personnel and research outcomes from the infamous Unit 731 of the Kwantung Army of Japan, which conducted abominable human-body biological weapon experiments during WWII. In 2019, the US CDC abruptly halted most of the researches in the lab with a "cease and desist order." In July of the same year, pneumonia broke out in two retirement communities near the lab for untold reasons. In the following September, lung injury cases said to be associated with vaping doubled in the state of Maryland, where the lab is based. And in the next year, a global pandemic of coronavirus pneumonia came to ravage the world. Three years on, despite the growing demand for an explanation, US authorities have simply ignored the mysterious respiratory disease outbreaks as if they never happened. Providing the reasons for the halt order and specifics of the unusual pneumonia outbreaks will help dispel public doubt. Why are US authorities so reluctant to do so?

Second, Dr Ralph Baric and his team at the University of North Carolina (UNC) still owe the world a proper explanation. Dr Baric is a longtime expert in researching, designing, modifying and synthesizing SARS-like coronaviruses. In 2006, his team developed a mutated coronavirus that could put mice to death instantly and had the potential to spread among human beings. And according to the UNC and ProPublica, an online newsroom, lab accidents were repeatedly reported in Dr Baric's lab from 2012 to 2018, among which six accidents involved lab-created SARS-like and MERS-like coronaviruses. Moreover, by a striking coincidence, many fellow researchers in Dr Baric's team actually work at Fort Detrick. What do Dr Baric's researches have to do with SARS-CoV-2? What are the synthesized viruses used for? What's the link between Dr Baric's team and Fort Detrick? Since his researches pose potential threats to public health, the world has the right to know the answers.

Third, in August 2021, Nature magazine noted a research from the US Department of Agriculture showing that 40 percent of white-tailed deer in northeastern US had antibodies against SARS-CoV-2, and the earliest sample tested positive for virus infection came from 2019, earlier than the first confirmed COVID-19 case in the US in 2020. SAGO suggests in its preliminary report that "genetic studies of coronaviruses in wildlife species in the rest of the world are also needed in order to identify new leads on ancestral or intermediate hosts." A thorough probe into the wildlife, especially the white-tailed deer, and bio-labs in the US is reasonable and more than necessary. Could the white-tailed deer be the intermediate host of the virus that experts have been searching for?   

In a pandemic, containing the virus is not a battle of one particular country, but of the whole world. Despite being the world's most developed country with the best medical resources, the US has responded to the pandemic poorly and bogged the world down in a struggle against the virus. Delayed mask and vaccine mandate, unfair resource allocation and selfish party politics have made the US a failed country in the COVID-19 fight. That failure is not only a result of irresponsibility to the American people, but also a detrimental factor to global efforts to combat the virus. 

As experts around the world have repeatedly stressed, origins tracing must be conducted fully on the basis of science, and the purpose of origins tracing is to better understand the virus and prevent recurrence of the pandemic rather than to scapegoat any country. The US ought to open its bio-labs to international independent probe, if it really cares about finding the origins of COVID-19.

The author is a commentator on international affairs, writing regularly for CGTN, Global Times, Xinhua News Agency, etc. He can be reached at xinping604@gmail.com.