Op-Ed

No more conspiracy; let science take the lead

Earlier this year, China invited a WHO expert team made up of 17 scientists from 10 countries and organizations to the city of Wuhan, the initial epicenter of the pandemic, for the China part of the global study of the origins of the COVID-19 virus.

This study was phase one of WHO’s ongoing program authorized by resolution WHA 73.1 that aims to identify the zoonotic source of the virus and the route of introduction to the human population in order to reduce the risk of similar events occurring.

China cooperated with the WHO mission in an open, transparent and science-based way.

The joint study team, which also included 17 Chinese scientists, assessed four possible pathways for the introduction of the virus, including direct zoonotic spillover, an intermediate host, cold food chain products and laboratory incident, and they rated each according to the degree of likelihood.

The likelihood of lab incident was duly examined by the joint study team. They inspected the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV), scrutinized the standard operating procedure, management rules, enforcement of security at the WIV and looked through all the research programs it was and is engaged in.

They then listed all the factors either supporting or precluding the lab leak possibility, and came to the eventual conclusion that the introduction of the virus through a laboratory incident is “extremely unlikely”. This was written into the report of the joint expert team as the official and authoritative conclusion of the phase one origin tracing by the WHO.

Unfortunately, such a fact and science-based conclusion was apparently not enough to dispel the conspiracy theory about lab leak, which swirled around with vociferous momentum following the release of the report. Apparently, determined political forces are doggedly promoting this narrative.

But what do conspiracy theorists have to show for their assertions? One oft-cited “evidence” is that three researchers at the Wuhan Institute of Virology fell ill in November 2019 with similar symptoms as COVID 19. The other is that the WIV conducted the so-called “gain of function” experiments on the virus, whereby they would enhance the virulence of the virus.

Yet the accusers never provided the names of those sick researchers. In fact, they wouldn’t be able to, since according to the WIV, none of its staff members or graduate students were infected with the virus. Furthermore, the WIV denied many times that they ever conducted gain of function experiments.

A lie told a thousand times will still be a lie. As Ms. Shi Zhengli, the leading researcher at the WIV nicknamed “bat-lady” commented to the New York Times, “This is no longer a question of science, it is speculation rooted in utter distrust.”

Danielle Anderson, an Australian expert who worked at the WIV until November 2019, told Bloomberg recently that there’s no evidence that infection as a result of gain of function occurred. She further said she was impressed with the institute’s maximum biocontainment lab which has the highest biosafety designation.

It is the common understanding among the scientific community that the COVID-19 virus evolved in nature.

On July 5, 24 leading experts from around the world published an article in The Lancet, noting that “a laboratory-leak source of the pandemic remains without scientifically validated evidence”.

On July 7, 2021, scientists from the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia released a preprint paper on Zenodo, a research data sharing platform in Europe, in which they wrote, “There is currently no evidence that SARS-CoV-2 has a laboratory origin. There is no evidence that any early cases had any connection to the Wuhan Institute of Virology.”

Given all this, it cannot but come as a total surprise not just to China but to fair-minded people around the world that the WHO’s proposed second phase of studies into the origins of the coronavirus should list the hypothesis that “China’s breach of laboratory protocols caused the virus to leak” as one of the research priorities and still focus origin tracing on China.

There can only be one explanation for such single-minded promotion of the lab leak theory, that is, the WHO has come under overwhelming political pressure by some member states, and the scientific process has been sidetracked by politics.

The aim of all this manoeuvring is self-evident: accuse, slander and pin blame on China, with the collateral damage being the American scientists who worked with the WIV before the pandemic.

The second phase of origin tracing should be a continuation of the first phase, guided by Resolution WHA73.1 and conducted on the basis of thorough discussions among WHO members.

It shouldn’t evolve into a political investigation based on the presumption of guilt and with the aim of validating the conspiracy claims. Without new scientific evidence, there would be no justification for reopening the case.

The next phase of origin tracing should be focused, among others, on early cases in different parts of the world, as it was found that blood samples from December 2019 to January 2020 in various countries tested positive for coronavirus antibodies.

People of the world deserve to know the answers to where COVID-19 came from, but politicizing the scientific work of origin tracing would only push humanity further from the truth.

The better angels of human nature should prevail, otherwise, we would all be worse off in terms of preventing a recurrence of the pandemic.

• Dan Qingli is the chinese  Ambassador to The Bahamas.

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