A high-ranking official of the World Health Organization (WHO) saying that the global health body can’t force China on giving more information that could be relevant to investigating the origins of SARS CoV-2, the Covid-19 virus, would seem like an abdication of duty. To be sure, the WHO has no way to compel China to provide such information; it can merely expect “co-operation” from a member-state. Its operation/access within a jurisdiction is subject to the powers of the sovereign.
It is also true that neither the WHO nor the global community at large can afford to ostracise China in the quest to probe Covid-19 origins. Not only will this render the probe fruitless, but also will pose a greater global health risk in the long-term, given how integrated China is to supply-chains in the globalised world and how its large population has significant implications for global health and epidemiological efforts.
But, despite the world health body’s protestations, the global community continues to believe that the agency failed to execute its mandate in early days of the pandemic. And, there can be no doubt that the WHO should have pressed China for more transparency, quite like it did in the 2003 SARS outbreak.
The Biden administration’s recent green-lighting of an intelligence probe into the origins of SARS CoV-2 comes against the backdrop of the WHO’s probe earlier this year being viewed as inadequate by many member-states as well as experts. Indeed, when the WHO panel that visited Wuhan to probe the origins of the virus ruled out a laboratory origin of the virus, insisting on the high likelihood of a zoonotic origin, WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus himself had opined the matter wasn’t so cut and dry.
Several prominent scientists have also questioned the dismissal of the lab-origin hypothesis. That apart, recent connect-the-dots hypotheses which see hints of a link between SARS CoV-2 and the 2012 Mojiang incident, in China’s Yunnan province, have led to a renewed call for investigation of SARS CoV-2 origins. Bear in mind, RaTG13, the beta coronavirus isolated by the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) from Mojiang samples, has strong resemblance to SARS CoV-2.
This can lend itself to the hypothesis that the Covid-19 virus is of natural origin and also the hypothesis that it was tinkered with in WIV which has handled samples from Mojiang in the past. What’s more, former US secretary of state Mike Pompeo, writing in Wall Street Journal (WSJ), had talked of “gain of function” research by Chinese scientists.
The fact a top WIV official had pointed out safety-standards issues in some of China’s labs would also lend weight to the lab-leak hypothesis. Adding to this is the WSJ report on WIV researchers suffering falling ill much earlier than the so-called index case was recorded and news-stories of top research journals stonewalling academic submissions on the virus’s origin.
That said, the focus now has to be to determine the origins to find ways to plug the gaps that led to the pandemic, rather than to apportion blame, and seek reparations—as suggested by Donald Trump. Indeed, the US also must examine its own potential role, with the reports of risky viral research in China having received US funding.
Transparency is now key; else, as experts have warned, the world will still be battling worse pandemics in the years to come.