Concept that COVID originated in a Chinese language laboratory is taking up new life, in accordance with the WHO report: NPR
World Health Organization team members investigating the origins of the novel coronavirus leave the Wuhan Institute of Virology in China on February 3. Hector Retamal / AFP via Getty Images hide the caption
Hector Retamal / AFP via Getty Images
Hector Retamal / AFP via Getty Images
Before COVID-19, few scientists would have identified the Chinese city of Wuhan in central temperate China as the likely starting point for a global coronavirus pandemic. The climate and fauna don’t fit into the equation.
The city on the Yangtze River with a population of 11 million is home to some of the most advanced biological research laboratories in China. And one of the secret government institutions, the Wuhan Institute of Virology, is known to conduct experiments on the very type of virus that has killed nearly 3 million people worldwide since late 2019.
“I think there have been a lot of people put together the fact that you had an outbreak in Wuhan and you have these labs in Wuhan pretty much right away,” said David Feith, an Asian adviser to the Trump administration’s State Department when the coronavirus emerged.
“The question was, what does the evidence tell us?” says Feith, who currently works at the Washington DC Think Tank, Center for New American Security.
Not much at the time.
President Trump and some in his administration stuck to the theory. However, scientists focused on stopping the pandemic and China launched an international investigation.
Now the laboratory leak hypothesis seems to have found new life.
On Tuesday, after a four-week investigation in China, the World Health Organization released a joint report with Beijing on the causes of the pandemic. Among other things, it came to the conclusion that the laboratory leak hypothesis was “extremely unlikely”.
However, WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said he did not think the team’s assessment of the possibility of laboratory leaks was comprehensive enough.
“Although the team has concluded that a laboratory leak is the least likely hypothesis, it will require further investigation, possibly with additional missions involving specialists I am willing to deploy,” he said, according to a written statement to WHO members.
Jamie Metzl, a senior Atlantic Council official, was an outspoken supporter of such an investigation.
“I’m not saying that I’m sure COVID-19 came from an accidental laboratory leak, but it would be absolutely irresponsible and could only be politically motivated to say that it is not even worth doing a full investigation,” he said.
A State Department bulletin dated mid-January highlights reports from sick laboratory researchers at the Wuhan Institute of Virology in the fall of 2019, notes the dangerous nature of coronavirus research the laboratory has been conducting, and says there is also secret military activity in the laboratory gave .
China has disproved the claims. Critics of the WHO report like Metzl say the team of experts who visited the laboratory took their Chinese interlocutors at their word and did not dig. Metzl said that was insufficient.
“If China, in the midst of the worst pandemic in a century, wants to tell the rest of the world, ‘fuck you, it’s not even worth investigating’, that’s because of them. But we shouldn’t give them a free pass.” he said.
While Metzl and others, like Feith, believe there is more evidence that SARS-CoV-2 came from a laboratory than natural, many scientists say the opposite. Based on the evidence available, they, like the WHO team, believe that the coronavirus is far more likely to have occurred naturally.
Alina Chan, a postdoctoral fellow working on genetics at the Broad Institute in Boston, says this is a critical point.
“This time China is the hot spot. … But next time it might not be China. So if we decide we can’t investigate, we just give up this time, then other countries might feel that we can’t is not the case. ” there is an accountability mechanism in place, “she said.
That could potentially lead to less stringent and more dangerous laboratory conditions, she says.
Politics at play
Not far below the surface of the debate are geopolitical tensions between China and the United States – relations between the two countries have deteriorated over the last year under Trump and show no signs of improvement under the Biden administration.
President Trump tried to blame China as much as possible for COVID-19 – and pushed the laboratory leak theory – in what some viewed as an attempt to divert criticism of his own handling of the pandemic.
But Scott Kennedy, of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, says China’s footing of investigation, counter-allegations, and secrecy did not help his case.
“The West prides itself on its openness and transparency towards authoritarian places like China. In the competition for soft power and legitimacy, this is a useful topic to move forward,” he said.
For its part, the Biden government, along with 13 other governments, criticized the WHO report and called for China to be more open on Tuesday. In a joint statement, the laboratory leak theory was not mentioned, but Biden did not rule it out.
“I think the government has made it pretty clear that given China’s lack of transparency, it’s not convenient to get rid of the laboratory escape theory,” said Elizabeth Economy, a senior fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution.
“The fact that WHO chief Tedros, who previously campaigned for China’s transparency, said that more research is needed before ruling out the possibility of the virus escaping the laboratory signals that continued skepticism is deserved,” says Economy.
However, some fear that a persistent focus on hypothetical laboratory accidents could further harm US-China relations, which have been the rockiest in decades.
Deborah Seligsohn, an assistant professor at Villanova University, was in charge of science and health matters at the US Embassy in Beijing during the 2002-3 SARS epidemic. She says there has been a great deal of cooperation between China and the United States in the fields of science and public health, including on this pandemic, and it is not best to put pressure on Beijing.
“I think this leads to a lot of allegations and at some point someone decides to spread them by working out some kind of face protection agreement, but I don’t think that actually leads to science,” she said.
And, good or bad, pushing hard can make it harder to get answers to what is causing the pandemic – which will not be difficult under any circumstances.
“I think genetics will tell you about the virus. I think it would be very difficult to tell you where it got into the human population and how it spread and whether or not it came from a laboratory the lab. I think this is going to be very difficult, “said Barry Bloom, immunologist and infectious disease expert at Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health.
“And no matter how good the rational explanations from another WHO committee are, there is a subset of people in both countries who will not believe the most likely answers.”