'Lab leak,' a politically poisoned theory
By Zhong Cheng  ·  2021-06-21  ·   Source: NO.25 JUNE 25, 2021

A memorial installation for those who died from COVID-19 outside Green-Wood Cemetery in New York, the U.S., on June 14 (XINHUA)

The pandemic has stoked great upheaval. The appearance of new variants is causing problems and preventing countries from returning to normal life. The global battle against COVID-19 is far from finished. But, if the pandemic has taught us anything, it is that in a world of increasing connectivity seemingly disparate issues are intrinsically and intricately linked.

That said, the "lab leak" allegation is being dragged up again, in disregard of the scientific conclusion of the World Health Organization (WHO) that a "lab leak" is extremely unlikely. This time "a report may be released to share in detail the findings of the U.S. intelligence community on the origin of the novel coronavirus," as U.S. President Joe Biden put it.

Shortly after, Kurt Campbell, the White House top official for Asia, said the U.S. is entering a period of intense competition with China. He said "the period that was broadly described as engagement has come to an end... the dominant paradigm is going to be competition."

Seeking truth from facts

First, since the origin-tracing is a science-based study, to draw on the intelligence apparatus instead of relying on scientific conclusion seems suspicious. Particularly, as U.S. intelligence services have already discredited themselves with the now notorious and outrageous claims of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and Libya and chemical weapon attacks in Syria.

As former Central Intelligence Agency Director and former U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo boasted, "We lied, we cheated, we stole. We had entire training courses. It reminds you of the glory of the American experiment."

With all these examples of bogus intelligence, should the global community trust the findings of U.S. intelligence services that have a proven history of lying to further U.S. foreign policy objectives?

Second, the "lab leak" allegation is poisoned by politics. Many international experts and scholars have questioned and criticized the U.S. practice of politicizing the issue of origin-tracing.

American scholar Peter Daszak, a member of a WHO expert team to Wuhan earlier this year, dismissed U.S. intelligence reports as "political, not scientific," calling the "lab leak" hypothesis "pure baloney," saying he was confident his Chinese scientific partners were not hiding anything. He emphasized that he and other scholars who had been to Wuhan for origin-tracing studies had published a wealth of data supporting a "natural spillover," and pointed out there was a complete lack of data suggesting a lab accident.

Australian scientist Dominic Dwyer, also a member of the WHO expert team, reaffirmed that there was no evidence to back up the possibility of a "lab escape." Mike Ryan, head of the WHO emergencies program, said on May 28, "We would like for everyone out there to separate, if they can, the politics of this issue from the science. This whole process is being poisoned by politics."

U.S. politicians are obsessed with the allegation when there is no evidence to prove that the virus was released from a Chinese laboratory. With more than 33 million confirmed cases and over 600,000 deaths from COVID-19, both the highest in the world, the U.S., instead of examining its own inaction, is attempting to renew efforts to label the virus and shift the blame to China. It shows that facts and truth are the last thing the U.S. cares about.

Ethan Siegel, an American science writer bluntly uncovers U.S.' ill-intention and ulterior motives, saying the conspiracy theory has gained a lot of traction, because "after all, how much more comforting would it be to know that just a handful of evil people—not the politicians who sacrificed their constituents—were ultimately responsible for the tragedies of the past months?" Foreigners designing a virus in a mysterious lab, a nefarious activity, and then the cloak of secrecy around China, Daszak goes on to point out, "It's a good conspiracy theory."

Third, an open and in-depth study has already been carried out in China in the spirit of openness, transparency and cooperation.

China has twice invited WHO experts to China for joint studies of the COVID-19 origins. The latest one ran from January 14 to February 10. With strong support from China, 17 international experts, independently selected by WHO, formed a joint mission with Chinese experts to conduct field research for a four-week trip in Wuhan. At the joint team's request, the Chinese side arranged its visits to the Hubei provincial and Wuhan municipal centers for disease control and prevention and the Wuhan Institute of Virology.

The team visited bio-safety laboratories, held in-depth, candid and science-based discussions, and gained a thorough knowledge of the lab management, standard operating procedures and latest progress in virology research. That's why international experts on this joint mission have spoken highly of China's openness and transparency on different occasions.

On the "China lab leak" hypothesis, the WHO-China joint mission arrived at the conclusion through prudent science-based study that "a laboratory origin of the pandemic was considered to be extremely unlikely." This conclusion and the process of the study were recorded in its report. It is an authoritative conclusion based on science.

As Peter Ben Embarek from WHO further explained, "The laboratory incident hypothesis is extremely unlikely to explain the introduction of the virus into the human population. Therefore it is not a hypothesis that requires future study to support our work into understanding of the origin of the virus."

In disregard of the scientific conclusion, the U.S. insists on politicizing the origin-tracing of the virus. However, this is not only undermining the participating scientists, but also those with the job of mitigating future spillovers, weakening efforts to prevent the next possible pandemic.

Fourth, investigation should be carried out in the U.S.

What is worth recalling is that the U.S. has the largest scale and highest number of bio-labs in the world. Hundreds of millions of dollars go into research organizations around the world and there are risks of leaks, accidental or intentional, no matter how sophisticated the labs are.

According to public information, Fort Detrick is inextricably linked with Unit 731, a covert biological and chemical warfare research and development unit of the Japanese army that undertook lethal human experimentation during the Japanese War of Aggression Against China in 1931-45. Shiro Ishii, who was in charge of this heinous unit, was also the bio-weapon consultant of Fort Detrick. It is also worth recalling that the U.S. anthrax attacks in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks in 2001 were committed by a bioterrorism researcher mailing anthrax spores to politicians and journalists.

In addition, some of the suspected positive samples were detected even before the first novel coronavirus case was reported. There were unexplained outbreaks of respiratory disease in north Virginia in July 2019 and the subsequent clusters of e-cigarette or vaping-associated lung injury cases in Wisconsin. Explanations have not been forthcoming.

The U.S. keeps saying that China should participate in a full, transparent, evidence-based international investigation; however, to be fair, the U.S. should open Fort Detrick and the over 200 U.S. bio-labs all over the world for visits, investigations and research by international experts.

A woman receives a jab of a China-developed COVID-19 vaccine in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, on June 1 (XINHUA)

Health first, life first

On the issue concerning humanity's health and safety, our aspirations should be saving lives and getting better prepared to cope with similar public health crises in the future, not instigating confrontation and division.

In this respect, the problem of uneven vaccination distribution has become more acute. Many rich nations are hoarding COVID-19 vaccines. The promise of 1 billion doses from the Group of Seven for vaccine-hungry countries coming both directly and through the international COVAX program falls far short of the 11 billion doses that WHO said are needed to vaccinate at least 70 percent of the world's population and truly end the pandemic.

Putting people and life front and center, China has actively carried out vaccine cooperation, making it a new highlight in international relations, and resolutely resists "vaccine nationalism." It has announced support for waiving intellectual property rights on COVID-19 vaccines. It has been encouraging its vaccine companies to transfer technologies to other developing countries and carrying out joint production to expand vaccine accessibility and affordability. It endeavors to promote the equitable distribution of vaccines worldwide, especially in the developing countries. In June, Egypt will start production of a vaccine developed by Chinese pharmaceutical company Sinovac, as announced by Prime Minister Mostafa Madbouly.

The coronavirus continues to ravage the U.S.; climate change has challenged the assumption of its economic models, and it is facing the spectacular re-emergence of China as a great power.

However, China and the U.S. are two major countries that share broad-based common interests in upholding world peace and stability, and promoting world economic recovery and development. It is only natural that China and the U.S. experience some competition in their relationship, which is the case in any major-country relationship.

However, allowing "competition" to dominate Sino-U.S. ties is a mistake that will only lead to confrontation and possibly conflict. The two sides stand to gain from cooperation and lose from confrontation. Even if there is competition, it should be a sound one that helps them pursue common progress, rather than a vicious one to contain the other.

The author is an op-ed contributor to Beijing Review and an expert on international studies

Copyedited by Ryan Perkins

Comments to yanwei@bjreview.com

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