NEW DELHI: The pandemic could well rank as the ultimate whodunit! Was it the work of Chinese scientists trying to develop a bioweapon, as many widely believe? If that is indeed the case, did the Chinese do it alone? Was there international collaboration which the Chinese benefited from?
There is no doubt that the pandemic had its origins in the Chinese city of Wuhan where the Institute of Virology is located. The institute is the object of considerable attention but the Chinese aren’t giving away much. A WHO team had only limited access to the facility, and there are allegations that the agency’s chief Dr Tedros Ghebreyesus deferred to Beijing, allowing the inquiry to be influenced by them.
It is a fact that the WHO heard of the spread of the virus in Wuhan from Taiwan, and from an automated alert system which scans the web for such phenomena. On its part, China did everything it could to suppress, obfuscate and repress any advance warnings. According to a Japanese newsmagazine that was able to access Chinese documents, a WHO team was allowed into Wuhan only in January this year, thereby giving the authorities enough time to destroy evidence about the virus leaking from the lab. Result: the WHO absolved itself and China of any responsibility claiming that “the virus may have been in circulation outside China in the last months of 2019”.
So was the virus the product of Chinese ingenuity? The evidence gets a little murky here. Prof. Srikanth Kondapalli, who researches on China and teaches at Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University, has, in a recent analysis, underscored some important points.
“Chinese biowarfare researchers Qiu Xiangguo and her husband Cheng Keding and their students working at the Canadian National Microbiology Lab in Winnipeg, Canada, were reportedly involved in the smuggling of coronavirus in March 2019 to the Wuhan lab, from where it leaked in late 2019. Qiu is reported to have visited the WIV five times in 2017-18. In July 2019, Qiu and Cheng were relieved of their duties at the Winnipeg lab.”
Then there is Shi Zhengli, the suspected architect of the bioweapons programme at the Wuhan Institute. The irony is she is internationally renowned with awards from France and the US. France, Kondapalli writes, “contributed to the maintenance and training of personnel at the high security BSL-4 Lab”, where the SARS-Covid-2 virus was developed. One allegation is that minutely laid down safety protocols at the institute were never followed resulting in tragedy.
Shi was elected to the American Academy of Microbiology in January 2019, 10 months before the outbreak. Shi had extensive contacts with American microbiologists Peter Daszak, Kristian Andersen, Ralph S Barik among others, and institutes affiliated to the US National Institutes of Health funded research at Wuhan. Also, there were regular contacts between Anthony Fauci, U.S. health czar, and the Wuhan institute, which raise a lot of eyebrows. The contacts, writes Kondapalli, continued until Wuhan locked down.
According to an investigation published in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Daszak is founder of the EcoHealth Alliance of New York that has funded coronavirus research at the Wuhan lab, and was also a member of the WHO team assigned to the inquiry. If this is not a conflict of interest, what is? It notes that Daszak has “routinely created viruses more dangerous than those that exist in nature.” This was justified on the grounds that they could detect “spillovers”, which is when viruses cross over from animals to humans.
Another gentleman involved in the cover up is Kristian Andersen of the Scripps Institute. In an opinion piece in the 17th March issue of Nature Medicine, he and four other virologists claimed that the “SARS-Cov-2 virus is not a laboratory construct or a purposefully manipulated virus”. How could they know this since new developments in the “cutting and pasting” of viral genomes leave no trace of manipulation.
Regrettably, President Joe Biden appears to be wanting to put a lid on any further revelations about Wuhan. Shortly after he took over, the U.S. rejoined the WHO, not seeking to put any pressure on the agency to detach itself from China’s influence. Then, by a presidential memorandum dated January 26, he outlawed any reference to the pandemic by its geographic location, meaning no “Wuhan Virus” as former president Trump had described it.
Whether the Wuhan virus was stolen as some accounts describe it, or was developed in the Wuhan laboratory with foreign funding and scientific expertise, there seems to be a concerted effort to cover things up. As the article in the Bulletin notes, “if SARS2 had indeed escaped from such a laboratory experiment, a savage blowback could be expected and the storm of public indignation would affect virologists everywhere, not just in China.”
“It would shatter the scientific edifice top to bottom,” said an editorial in the MIT Technology Review.
Last word on China. The lack of transparency surrounding the working of the Wuhan lab raises doubts as to Beijing’s commitment to the 1984 Convention on Biological and Toxic Weapons. China is suspected to have developed some 40 anti-human pathogens. The virulence with which the virus has swept through the world, levelling economies and disrupting supply chains, with China emerging virtually unscathed, is a reminder and a warning that physical wars may be unnecessary when a virus can extract the same cost.