In a statement released at the end of May 2021, the president of the United States, Joe Biden, had demanded the Intelligence Community to double their efforts to determine the still unclear causes that generated the Coronavirus pandemic. The American president gave a time limit of 90 days for the Intelligence services to gather the information that will allow pinpointing the exact origins of the virus, or at least to provide some more clarity on the matter. Fast forward to three months later, the experts’ assessment presented to the head of state is still inconclusive and does not yet establish which could be the source that sparked the beginning of the infection. As a result, the World Health Organization (WHO) has warned that the investigations seem to have stalled. Amidst a political blame game between China, the United States, and the WHO, experts warn that further delays could result in “biologically impossible” research, completely closing down any possibility of uncovering the truth.
At the beginning of the outbreak, Alina Chan, a postdoctoral fellow at the Broad Institute in Cambridge, noticed that the disease that was spreading seemed to be very stable, with few mutations observed. This detail surprised Dr Chan who then started thinking of an alternative hypothesis to the prevailing consensus which seemed to pinpoint the origins of the SARS-CoV-2 to a natural spillover from animals to humans. According to Alina Chan, another likely reason could have been linked to an accidental lab leak. This affirmation caused numerous criticisms and backlash against the postdoctoral fellow whose opinion was quickly dismissed because of her then junior scientist status.
As the months passed by and the disease spread to the entire world, the WHO in October 2020 tasked a group of scientists to investigate the roots of the Coronavirus. The specialists worked closely with the Chinese team in Wuhan and in March 2021 released a report which has been qualified as “riddled with compromises and sloppiness”. Numerous were the criticisms against the study and the authorities before the paper was even shared with the wider public. In particular, these negative opinions could be summarised in three elements, namely “that China had not shared data adequately; that we (the experts) had paid insufficient attention to the lab-leak hypothesis; and that our (the experts) scientific conclusions were influenced by China’s political stance regarding transmission through the food chain”. As such, the research was inconclusive and the WHO General Director, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, concluded that “all hypotheses are on the table and warrant complete and further studies”. The investigations mandated by the WHO were meant to be completed in two steps. The first phase was aimed at understanding the origins of the disease and the second one would instead delve into the possibility of a lab leak from the Chinese institutes. However, China has refused to agree to further inspections.
The process aimed at discovering the truth has been highly politicised, with the two main participants – the United States and China – accusing each other. The Biden administration has claimed that “(T)here is important information about the origin of this epidemic in the People’s Republic of China, but from the beginning, Chinese government officials have been working to prevent international researchers and members of the global public health community from accessing it”. The Chinese government has voiced out their disapproval and claimed the United States was “scapegoating” and using “political manipulation”.
When responding to the accusations of withholding information, Wang Wenbin, China’s foreign ministry spokesman said that “this is just an excuse to cover up the failure of its (the United States’) intelligence in origin tracing”. Echoing this stance, Fu Cong, the head of the Chinese foreign ministry’s arms control department, has commented that “(I)f [the US] want to baselessly accuse China, they better be prepared to accept a counter-attack from China. If the US thinks China is guilty, they need to come up with evidence to prove that China is guilty. You don’t blame a victim for not providing information to incriminate himself”. The Chinese leadership went as far as to suggest that instead of the laboratory in Wuhan, the virus could have leaked from Fort Detrick, an American lab that focuses on the United States biological defence program.
As a next step, the WHO has decided to gather a panel of experts that will be charged with leading “WHO on next steps for understanding the SARS-CoV-2 origins" and helping with the "technical and scientific considerations regarding the origins of emerging and re-emerging pathogens of epidemic and pandemic potential”. The group labelled as SAGO, or the Scientific Advisory Group for the Origins of Novel Pathogens, is regarded as a way to depoliticise a process that should instead focus only on a scientific basis. Indeed, despite the numerous controversies on the different hypotheses surrounding the pandemic outbreak, scientists agree on the need for a transparent and unbiased study of the virus. Singapore’s Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan has pleaded for this warning saying that “(I)t is important, etiology is important, not for political or diplomatic reasons — it’s for the future. We need to know how these things happen, where the next outbreak is going to be, what the likely dynamics of these future pandemics will be”. To do this Maria Van Kerkhove, who is part of the WHO experts investigating on the origins of the virus, asserted that we have to “take out the politics of this as much as possible, and really stay rooted in the science and the scientific basis”. Ultimately, “Our goal is to move a political debate to a scientific debate, and just get on with it”.
Written by Cinzia Saro
Cinzia Saro is a columnist at DecipherGrey.