Given the increasingly fraught relationship between Washington and Beijing, it is not surprising that a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman reacted harshly to United States President Joe Biden’s recent move to order a renewed assessment of the origins of the Sars-Cov-2 virus that caused the Covid-19 pandemic. Presented with conflicting reports of whether the virus crossed the species barrier from a natural reservoir, or leaked from the Wuhan Institute of Virology, Mr Biden asked his intelligence agencies to report back within 90 days. China dismissed the fresh intelligence mandate as an attempt to engage in “stigmatisation, political manipulation and blame-shifting”. Speculation over the virus’ origin was rekindled after the Wall Street Journal reported that three Wuhan Institute researchers sought hospital care in November 2019 for symptoms consistent with both Covid-19 and common seasonal illnesses.
This reminded the world that 18 months into the outbreak, and after 3.54 million lives lost, the virus’ precise origins remain shrouded in accusations and conspiracies, geopolitics and possible cover-ups. Without clear evidence of the origins of the outbreak, preventing the next one will be even more difficult. Although a World Health Organisation-led team said a lab leak was extremely unlikely, WHO chief Tedros Ghebreyesus said that all hypotheses remain on the table.
If ever there was clear need to cooperate on a credible global study to chase down the virus to its roots, it is now. But cooperation on this scale is hampered by the geopolitical backdrop against which the pandemic rages. America’s tendency – continuing under the Biden administration – to frame almost all its key actions under a narrative in which China is painted as a threat, is particularly disappointing. Massive infrastructure plans announced in April were described as a once-in-a-generation investment amid “competition from China and other countries to win the 21st century”. Mr Kurt Campbell, the key US official for Asia, said last week that the period of engagement with China has ended. The dominant policy paradigm is going to be competition.
What is key is to separate the fact-finding from blame. China’s rejection that it is the source of the virus is understandable and accounts for its evident lack of enthusiasm for a fresh probe. Still, Beijing has more to gain by standing up as a responsible global citizen willing, in the interests of science, to overlook the discomfort of a team of global experts examining its Wuhan laboratories and wet markets for an extended period. It should not be forgotten that US and Chinese biologists have had a history of cooperation before the pandemic arrived. Those linkages must not be lost, and will be critical to pre-empt the next contagion and its crippling effects globally.