Questions about where Covid came from are not going away any time soon | Kim Sengupta

Questions about where Covid came from are not going away any time soon | Kim Sengupta
Beijing has continued to claim, against all evidence, that the virus did not originate in China

An international conference offering advice on the importance of biosafety measures, including how to avoid lab leaks during research and experiments involving animals, was held this month at an institute of virology – in Wuhan.

It had presentations by, among others, the deputy director general Guan Wuxiang, deputy director Yuan Zhiming and Professor Hongping Wei. Despite expectations, however, Shi Zhengli, the virologist known as China’s “Bat Woman”, did not make an appearance.

The event, advertised on the Chinese government-owned lab’s website, did not get much international publicity. It was, however, a success, according to the Institute, with more than 200 people – mostly students – signing up from a number of countries.

There is, of course, a strong element of irony in the lab accused of being the source of Covid-19, allegedly from manipulation of bat coronavirus, offering guidance on safety – just as another virulent strain of the pandemic spreads across the world. But then again, it may, for that very reason, be the ideal place to do so.

It should be noted that both the Chinese government and the Wuhan Institute have vehemently denied the allegations. Various investigations have failed to establish how precisely Covid-19 started, albeit amid charges, including from the WHO (World Health Organisation), that the Chinese government failed to be transparent about what took place in the crucial early days of the disease – when warnings and prompt action would have limited its devastating global impact.

Accusations of Covid-19’s Chinese origin, and Beijing’s attempts to hide this, have continued. As the Wuhan Institute was holding its biosafety conference, an eminent molecular biologist was telling the Commons Science and Technology Committee that the lab leak is the “more likely” origin of the global pandemic.

Alina Chan, from Canada, a specialist on gene therapy and cell engineering, and the co-author of a new book, Viral: The Search for the Origin of COVID-19, told MPs that – in her view, and those of her colleagues – the disease was caused by the unique features of the coronavirus’s “furin cleavage site”, linked to the Wuhan Institute of Virology.

Chan’s prognosis comes after a number of other reports, including one in the journal Science, in which 18 specialists stated that both laboratory and natural spillovers needed to be examined seriously – and studies by the British professor Angus Dalgleish and Norwegian scientist Birger Sorensen, which, they maintain, show that retro-engineering had been taking place in China for over a year and that the government had been responsible for “deliberate destruction, concealment or contamination of data” in labs.

Seven months ago, Joe Biden ordered a fresh investigation by US intelligence agencies into the origins of Covid-19. The report, delivered three months later, proved to be inconclusive.

The agencies agreed, however, that the Chinese government may not “have had foreknowledge” of SARS-CoV-2 before an outbreak of the virus in Wuhan, and that it emerged probably no later than in November 2019 –months before the Chinese government acknowledged its existence – and that “the virus was not developed as a biological weapon”.

The intelligence assessment stated: “China’s cooperation most likely would be needed to reach a conclusive assessment of the origins of Covid-19. Beijing, however, continues to hinder the global investigation, resists sharing information and blames other countries…”

Proponents of the lab-leak theory do not suggest that the Chinese government manufactured Covid-19 as a biological weapon or that it was deliberately disseminated. Nevertheless, Beijing has continued to claim, against all evidence, that the virus did not originate in China.

It also claims, without any credible evidence whatsoever, that the disease came from the US, Australia, Italy, Spain, Russia, Malaysia, India or Bangladesh – basically anywhere but China. Posters in Wuhan’s Central Hall claim that Covid-19 started in “a multiplicity of locations around the world”.

There has been retribution exacted by Beijing on those who challenge the official coronavirus narrative. At home, scientists, civil rights workers and journalists have been prosecuted and imprisoned, while retaliations have taken place against states internationally. Australia’s call for an independent investigation into the origins of Covid-19, for instance, led to punitive economic measures.

When it comes to attempts to shut down debate on the origins of the pandemic, there is also a strong British connection. In February 2020 Richard Horton, the editor of The Lancet, published a letter signed by 26 researchers condemning any suggestion that Covid-19 had leaked from a lab and dismissing it – in effect – as a baseless conspiracy theory.

The letter was organised and co-signed by Peter Daszak, originally from Manchester and now based in the US – who had connections with both the Wuhan Institute and Shi Zhengli (”bat woman”) – and he appeared to have succeeded in branding lab-leak theories as unscientific.

Daszak, who runs the New York-based, taxpayer-funded, non-profit EcoHealth Alliance, has been involved in projects costing hundreds of thousands of dollars. Emails obtained under the Freedom of Information Act revealed that Daszak was the primary organiser of the letter and had concealed the links between EcoHealth and the Wuhan Institute. Leaked documents also revealed that EcoHealth and the Wuhan Institute were discussing the insertion of novel furin cleavage.

It took The Lancet 16 months to publish an official conflict-of-interest addendum on the Daszak letter, despite the information becoming available soon after its publication. Richard Horton told MPs that the reason for the delay was that “it took us over a year to persuade him [Daszak] to declare his full competing interest…”

Horton had travelled to Beijing in 2015 to receive the Friendship Award from China – the highest honour awarded to “foreign experts who have made outstanding contributions to the country’s economic and social progress”. While he had previously claimed that China faced an unfair “blame game” over the pandemic, he later told MPs that he had changed his mind and agreed that lab-leak was “now a valid hypothesis”.

Daszak has now recused himself from a UN-backed Lancet commission into the origins of Covid-19. He had been the sole US-based representative in a WHO investigation, mounted jointly with China, on the origins of the coronavirus – which has since been accused of being a cover-up. It concluded that it was “very likely” that the virus infection came to humans from bats via an intermediary species, which it failed to identify.

There has been a noticeable change of tune from the WHO, which has been accused of acquiescing to Beijing in the past over the origin of coronavirus.

Last year, on the anniversary of the lockdown in Wuhan, an international independent review panel criticised Chinese officials for not putting in place public health measures when Covid-19 first appeared, and the WHO for failing to declare an international emergency on time. The panel, led by former New Zealand prime minister Helen Clark and former Liberian president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, called for urgent reforms of the WHO.

The WHO’s director general, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus – who was himself accused of delaying news of the initial outbreak at China’s behest – has asked Beijing to be more open in continuing investigations. The US and the European Union has also pressed for greater transparency from Beijing and emphasised the need for further investigations into the pandemic.

Calls for such probes have already had widespread consequences. China’s retaliatory measures after Australia’s call for an inquiry opened a schism between the two countries, which played a part in the signing of the AUKUS treaty with the US and UK for Australia to acquire nuclear submarines.

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Chinese officials, according to reports, were predicting earlier this year that the international focus on Covid-19 would start to fade in light of vaccinations and other measures to bring the pandemic under control.

But the coming of Omicron, along with the apprehension that other mutant strains will follow, is likely to mean that questions about how the disease began, and the secrets and lies surrounding it, are not going to go away.