Analysis: The increasing pressure on China because of the Covid laboratory leak could backfire

President Joe Biden has instructed US intelligence agencies to determine whether the Covid virus or a close ancestor came from a cave, a live animal market, a farm – or a secret Chinese laboratory.

But it is questionable whether this investigation will produce definitive findings, and it could even backfire.

Some experts suggest that global pressure could cause a Chinese scientific whistleblower to come up with evidence of a laboratory leak. After all, it is unlikely that such an accident would have happened without dozens of people learning of the leak or a subsequent cover-up.

But growing political pressure to expose Chinese misconduct or a laboratory accident as the cause of the pandemic could make a definitive answer less than likely, according to virologists and experts in scientific exchanges between the US and China.

“We have to reduce political tensions and let the scientists do the work, not the politicians,” said Dr. Jennifer Huang Bouey, a China-born Rand Corp. researcher.

But that seems like a pipe dream. In the US, lab leak theory is part of the conservative arsenal of attacks on those in academia and the media who have criticized President Donald Trump’s handling of the pandemic. For the ruling Chinese Communist Party, the political implications of admitting a laboratory leak and then covering it up are not a cause. It would essentially blame China for starting a global pandemic that killed 6 million people and brought the economy to a standstill.

When Biden announced a 90-day review of evidence on the origin of the virus last week – which may include a review of documents from US authorities that helped fund Chinese virus research – Chinese officials at a World Health Organization meeting declined the review and withdrew their promise, cooperate with scientists who examine all possibilities of origin.

During its visit to China in February, a WHO investigation team obtained approval from Chinese blood banks to hold donation samples that could indicate when and where the virus may have been circulating before it swept over the city of Wuhan in December 2019.

The team plans to return to China and expand their research to include markets and farms where $ 70 billion has been collected from animals such as civets, raccoon dogs and bamboo rats – potential carriers of the virus when it passed from bats to humans. Wildlife Breeding “Industry. In 2003, China banned the sale of such exotic wildlife in wet markets – which primarily sell fish and game such as live chickens – after being considered to be the source of the SARS epidemic, although such animals have returned to the markets over the years are.

Further studies are impossible without Chinese cooperation, which is stuck in politics, say the WHO investigators.

“We’re not following all of these obvious clues now,” said Dr. Marion Koopmans, a leading Dutch virologist who was part of the WHO team, last week. “Everything has stalled.”

Her team has been criticized for giving in to Chinese pressure by failing to seek rigorous scrutiny from the Wuhan Institute of Virology, the center of allegations of a laboratory leak. But to press for such an audit would require evidence of a leak rather than speculation based on intelligence reports and theoretical data gaps, Koopmans said. In addition, the Chinese government does not open their books. It has blocked access to the data and claims there have been thousands of hacking attempts against the Wuhan Institute.

This awkward stalemate could harm US-China scientific collaboration, which has gradually expanded over the past 40 years and remained strong despite attacks by the Trump administration. Whether a laboratory leak has occurred or not, it is difficult to imagine that a weakening of the scientific exchange would be good for both countries.

Chinese students paying full tuition made up the majority of international students at U.S. colleges and universities in 2019, although Chinese interest in U.S. schools appears to be waning. US laboratories rely on Chinese scholars, many of whom remain in the United States. Scientists from both countries publish papers more often than any other national “dyad,” according to a study by Caroline Wagner of Ohio State University.

But these partnerships had their problems, sometimes for political reasons. With AIDS and SARS, the Chinese were either reluctant to allow their scientists to publish data or published censuses that many Western experts doubted were correct.

Trump already restricted academic exchanges in 2017, issued fewer visas and increased the FBI’s vigilance towards academics with ties to China. Some inter-agency agreements were suspended, and in 2018, a contingent of 45-person Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in China was reduced to 10. Trump saw this as a punishment for the Chinese, but it effectively blinded the US to what was happening. in Chinese epidemiology.

Otherwise, “we might have driven the outbreak faster,” said Ben Corb, spokesman for the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology.

Despite his anti-China stance, Trump renewed a groundbreaking 1979 agreement in 2018 that authorized scientific and technological collaboration between the Chinese and US governments. However, this extension document is secret – presumably Trump was not happy to have to take the advice of his scientific advisors – and it is impossible to get a copy, according to Denis Simon, economics professor at Duke University, an expert on the US and China scientific relationship .

The Biden administration should advocate improving scientific cooperation – for example by easing the visa restrictions for Chinese scientists. And while Trump clearly saw the laboratory leak hypothesis as an opportunity to blame China for the government’s unfortunate Covid response – an association that tarnished the plausibility of the theory during the Trump years – Biden appears to want an answer to the question , at least in part, to help prevent future pandemics.

Since the turn of the century, and especially since SARS, China has sent many biologists to the US who are now suspicious of being viewed as unreliable partners in disease research. The Chinese government has copied many aspects of the US scientific and public health system, Bouey noted. This has resulted in close collaborations and friendships. At the beginning of the pandemic, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the National Institutes of Health’s foremost infectious disease specialist, is in regular email contact with George Gao, the Oxford and Harvard-trained scientist who heads China’s equivalent of the CDC.

Even with the cooperation of the Chinese government, we may never know how Covid started. But if the intelligence review suggests or determines that a laboratory leak caused the pandemic and China continues to wall up, it’s hard to predict what could happen.

“I think there will be hell,” said Simon. “We haven’t figured out the consequences of the answer yet. I am very concerned about our ability to deal with the emotions that are lost if this hypothesis is accepted. “

This story was produced by KHN, an editor of California Healthline, an editorially independent service of the California Health Care Foundation.

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