Covid-19: A hesitant first step toward solving a global mystery

July 14, 2020 08:00
Photo: Reuters

The first step was taken this past weekend towards investigating the origins of the coronavirus which, by July 12, had infected almost 13 million people around the globe with the loss of more than half a million lives.

But, while the two-person team from the World Health Organization arrived in China on Friday, by Monday morning there had been no announcement of any meetings with Chinese officials to discuss a larger WHO mission and its scope of investigation. Thus, it remained unclear what China’s attitude is towards this attempt by the WHO to determine the animal origins of the virus, which is believed to have come from bats.

China was originally opposed to the idea of an independent investigation and excoriated Australia for spearheading the effort. But in May, at a meeting of the World Health Assembly, the decision-making body of the WHO, there was such momentum for an investigation that China, in a last-minute change, supported the resolution and it was unanimously adopted.

But, with the United States having withdrawn its substantial financial support from the WHO and having announced its departure from the world health body next year, China is is now the most important member whose influence is difficult to match.

China may adopt delaying tactics, such as deferring any investigation until the pandemic is under control. This is a position it had previously adopted. It may also insist that the WHO not limit its investigation to China and has challenged the suggestion that it is the source of the virus, even though the outbreak began in Wuhan, in central China.

China’s media has publicized reports of the coronavirus reportedly having being found in samples of waste water and sewage in Spain, Italy and Brazil before the virus manifested itself in China.

Beijing may insist that the WHO investigate those instances and see whether the virus in fact had been present around the globe, lying dormant.

There have been allegations that the virus had escaped from a laboratory in Wuhan. China has strenuously denied that possibility, and may resist attempts to visit two labs in that city.

All in all, China is in a position to delay any probe so that years may be spent on fruitless investigations.

But since China had sponsored the resolution “to identify the zoonotic source of the virus,” among other things, it is in the country’s own interest to cooperate with the global health community and see that the mysteries surrounding the origins of this virus are thoroughly probed so that humanity will benefit, hopefully preventing any recurrence and, if another virus does appear, being better equipped to deal with it.

As Mike Ryan, executive director of WHO’s health emergencies program, said at a press conference last Tuesday before the departure of the two-person team for Beijing: “We need to lay out a series of investigations that will get the answers that I’m sure the Chinese government, governments around the world and ourselves really need in order to manage the risk going forward into the future.”

Differences over the Covid-19 virus have degenerated into an international blame game between the United States and China.

Last Friday, President Donald Trump, while on Air Force One on the way to Florida, again accused China of mishandling the virus, pointing to that as the cause for the poor bilateral relationship.

“They could have stopped the plague,” he said. “They could have stopped it, they didn’t stop it.”

The United States and other western countries have blamed China for the spread of the virus around the world. They cite China’s suppression of information early in the outbreak, including punishment of doctors who publicized the then mysterious disease for “spreading rumors.”

A scientific study of the coronavirus will have serious implications for how China is viewed by countries around the world, almost all of which have been affected by the pandemic.

While the research is not to assign blame but to gain scientific knowledge, inevitably it will clarify China’s actions in the early weeks and the extent to which they slowed down, or facilitated, the spread of the virus within China and abroad.

If the scientists who conduct the research conclude that China was in some way responsible for allowing the spread of the virus overseas, no doubt that will be a major blow to Beijing. But if the scientists conclude that China had on the whole conducted itself well, putting the virus under control rapidly, that will have a significant, positive, impact on China’s image.

As China negotiates with the WHO on how the investigation should be conducted, much hangs in the balance, both for Beijing and for humanity as a whole.

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Frank Ching opened The Wall Street Journal’s Bureau in China in 1979. He is now a Hong Kong-based writer on Chinese affairs.