President Donald Trump has been terming Covid-19 as the Chinese Virus based on its origin. He has been demanding that China be held responsible for failing to report accurately on the pandemic. His Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, has referred to it as the ‘Wuhan Virus’.
These accusations compelled China to respond. China initially responded by urging the US “to correct its mistake and stop its groundless accusations against China.” Subsequently, China commenced spreading conspiracy theories with its spokesman Zhao Lijian tweeting “it might be US army that brought the epidemic to Wuhan”.
Accusations by both nations raise doubts on it being a failed biological weapon experiment. There are multiple questions which remain unanswered on the virus. Was the virus a leak from a biological experimental laboratory or did it originate from the seafood market in Wuhan? Was information on its discovery hidden from the world?
Would global reaction have been better if inputs had flowed on time? The World Health Organization (WHO) admits that Covid-19 emanated in Wuhan. The unanswered question is whether its origin was a seafood market or was it accidently leaked from a Chinese biological warfare laboratory? By hiding the source and time of its origin, China delayed global reactions.
China has a Wuhan Institute of Virology, a level four biosafety laboratory (highest level of safety precautions), located seven km from the epicentre of the outbreak. A Chinese Centre for Disease Control and Prevention is based about 280 meters from the claimed epicentre. Either of these could have been the source.
In an article in the Foreign Affairs issue on 5 March, Yanzhong Huang, an expert on China and a senior fellow on Global Health for Foreign Affairs, wrote: “A safety breach at the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention is believed to have caused four suspected SARS cases, including one death, in Beijing in 2004. A similar accident caused 65 lab workers of Lanzhou Veterinary Research Institute to be infected with brucellosis in December 2019.”
Evidently, China’s safety record at its biological laboratories is questionable and there are regular reports of Chinese scientists breaking biosafety rules only to cut costs. While scientifically there remain doubts on the origin of the virus, some recent Chinese actions have raised eyebrows. In February, China appointed Major General Chen Wei, its foremost biowarfare expert, as the new head of its Wuhan Institute of Virology.
This fuelled suspicion about the leak from the laboratory as the move was sudden and taken even as the virus was peaking. On February 14, Chinese President Xi Jinping highlighted the need to incorporate biosafety measures into its national security regime. This was followed by the Ministry of Science issuing directions on biosafety management in laboratories handling the coronavirus.
Was China correcting a leak? There are reports that China delayed announcing the detection of a new strain of the known coronavirus. The first official announcement was made by China on 31 December 2019, whereas the strain was detected on 17 November and lockdown implemented on 22 January. China muzzled the whistle-blower, late Dr Lee Wenliang, now termed as a national hero.
On 3 January, he was forced to sign a statement admitting to spreading “untrue speech” by warning colleagues on the virus. This delay in release of accurate information and late lockdown slowed international reactions. The International Health Regulations (IHR) act as a guide to countries on how to act when diseases cross borders. These regulations were revised in 2005 only because of China withholding information on SARS in 2004 which led to 774 deaths.
However, there is no penalty on nations not adhering to IHR rules. Thus, even when a pandemic strikes, no action can be taken against states which fail to report a public health problem or hide a crisis, even if it impacts millions. China initially mentioned that there was “no clear evidence of human-to-human transmission”, whereas the reality was vastly different as the Chinese quarantine response indicated.
China evidently hid the crisis, which delayed global response. China shared the genetic sequence of the virus; however, it never shared the virus itself, preventing the global community from understanding its mutation and transmissibility. For weeks China refused offers for visits by international experts. The world thus had lesser time to prepare and act against the impact of the virus, which worsened the outbreak.
Lawrence Gotsin, a Global Health Law Professor at the Georgetown University stated, “(This) delay in announcing the first cases of coronavirus for several weeks meant that during that time, millions of people travelled outside of Wuhan, so it was precious time lost.” The Financial Times said, “some 5 million people left Wuhan in the weeks before the city was quarantined on January 22, thus helping transport the virus all over the country and overseas.”
If China was the originator, Wuhan the place where the virus originated and China knowingly delayed the announcement, why did the WHO not comment adversely on China, and instead praised it? As Gotsin stated, “If WHO criticizes China publicly, it’s possible they can be less transparent, less cooperative.” Further, WHO would lose global relevance if ignored by China. Officially, there is no direct proof of its origin, though some evidence points towards a leak.
This is justified even by statements from China. Angered at being accused of being responsible, China commenced spreading rumours that the virus is a US biological weapon, transported to Wuhan by US athletes participating in the Military World Games held there in 2019. The virus initially spread to those regions where China has invested as part of its One Belt One Road initiative. Northern Italy, Pakistan and Iran being major hubs. Visitors from China and its travellers moved it globally.
Evidently, China made errors for which the world is paying both human and economic costs. Had any other country been the originator, it would have faced global condemnation. China escaped it because of its economic power and current support to affected nations. Despite everything, it will always be blamed for being lax on reporting the coronavirus.
(The writer is a retired Major-General of the Indian Army)