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Zoonotic or man-made: either way, China is guilty as hell|Joseph Long

Since the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic over a year ago, an estimated ten million excess deaths have been recorded worldwide. Having brought about the biggest and perhaps the deadliest crisis that we have faced in our lifetimes, Covid-19 has proved to be the most virulent and disruptive viruses to have ever swept the world. Yet a year on, the question remains as to how the pandemic started in the first place. For the survival of mankind and civilization as we know it, it is vital that we should look into and understand the origins of Covid-19: what makes answering the question all the more important is, not least, the urgency for us to guard against still deadlier mutations in the virus and prepare ourselves for the eventuality of another pandemic in our lifetimes.

This, however, has been proved to be much more difficult than anybody could have expected. China, in whose territory the virus was first discovered, has been suspiciously and exasperatingly obstructive to the efforts of the international community to probe into the origins of the virus. Up until as recently as January this year, China had on multiple occasions resisted calls for a probe into the origin of the coronavirus outbreak. When Australia openly called for a WHO-led investigation back in May 2020, Peking was so incensed at the suggestion that it immediately imposed sanctions and tariffs on Australian products such as coal and iron ore — a decision that backfired fiercely on its production and electricity supply subsequently. It was not until January 14 this year that Peking allowed a WHO-led investigation team to enter China to probe into the origins of the coronavirus pandemic. As a matter of fact, that the WHO team managed to enter China at all, many argue, should be considered a success in itself: the probe had been unilaterally deferred by China time and again since it was agreed upon by Peking after many months of negotiations with the WHO. As it happened, the team was turned away on the day the investigation was due to start; they had to, eventually, wait for another week before they were allowed into the country to actually start the investigation.

The investigation itself was not exactly fruitful: having spent two weeks in the field, the only conclusions that the team could reach was that it was “unlikely” the virus could have been leaked from a laboratory close to the Huanan Seafood Market where the outbreak started, and that the disease “might have been” brought into China on frozen food packets — not a particularly constructive conclusion, apart from trying to let China off the hook. The upshot was hardly surprising, not least because China had done virtually nothing with regards to the origins of the virus: according to the Guardian, when the WHO sent scientist Peter Ben Embarek to China in July 2020 his subsequent report to the agency stated that the Chinese had done “little…in terms of epidemiological investigations around Wuhan since January 2020”. Given that the WHO investigation was conducted relying heavily, if not wholly, on the samples, data, documents, and information provided by the Chinese authorities, it is no wonder the probe was nothing but a complete waste of time.

The pandemic was initially assumed by scientists to be attributed to a “zoonotic spillover” — meaning the virus was from an animal reservoir through which it eventually found its way to human beings. The assumption, though provisional, lends support to the theory that the virus originated in the infamous wet market in Wuhan. New information that came to light in past weeks, however, has given renewed impetus to the “laboratory hypothesis”, which suggests that the virus could have been leaked from either the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) or the Wuhan Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), situated only 12km and 500m respectively from the wet market, where cases of coronavirus infection first emerged. Some proponents of the lab hypothesis have even speculated that the virus that was allegedly leaked from the laboratory could be man-made: they point out that the virus looks very much like a cross between a pangolin virus and a bat virus with an additional genetic sequence that makes the virus far more infectious to humans. That this “hybrid” is not found in other closely related viruses might suggest that it has an artificial origin. This theory matches the account given by the virologist Dr Li-Meng Yan — now living in exile in the United States — in a peer-reviewed article, in which it was claimed that the “unusual features” of the coronavirus genome “suggest sophisticated laboratory modification rather than natural evolution”.

Last week Joe Biden ordered the intelligence services to “redouble” efforts to investigate the origins of Covid-19. This was following the revelation by US intelligence that three researchers from the Wuhan institute were admitted to hospital in November 2019, weeks before first reports of the coronavirus. Adding to the suspicion is the fact that, during the WHO visit early this year, the Chinese authorities refused requests to provide key epidemiological data on the 174 earliest known cases of Covid-19 in the city in December 2019. This information is crucial, not least for the simple reason that these cases could be used to pinpoint the sources of early infections, which in turn would vindicate China if what it has always maintained — that the virus has a zoonotic origin — were true.

China’s reluctance to provide the data on the 174 earliest known cases of Covid-19 speaks volumes — along with the circumstantial evidence that has come to light, there is every reason to believe that the virus was leaked from a Chinese lab. While one cannot be “100 per cent sure” — to quote Dr Fauci — that the virus was man-made, even if we grant that the virus is natural in origin, Peking is still hard to talk its way out of its failure in containing the virus as well as its despicable cover-up at the early stage, which directly caused an estimated ten million excess deaths worldwide. Be it zoonotic or man-made: either way, China is guilty as hell, and must be made responsible for the consequences that it has single-handedly caused.

(Joseph Long is a London-based writer and linguist from Hong Kong.)

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