This is a re-post of a blog, but with additional material. I added new information about the Chinese government response to the first SARS epidemic. You can find that section two-thirds of the way through the post under the headline in bold "The Chinese have done this before:"
“In a time of deceit telling the truth is a revolutionary act.”
― George Orwell
Yeah, I know, I said this would be a two-blog series about the research at the Wuhan Labs. But a comment a reader made on my second blog post made me think that I should make a third post to briefly address the apparent secrecy and lack of cooperation from the Chinese government regarding the research at the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV).
The Chinese have failed to cooperate to help us find the origin of the SARS-CoV-2 virus that caused COVID. They have denied access to WIV lab records or research personnel beyond what was posted on their coronavirus database as I mentioned in my prior blog post. This secrecy and lack of cooperation began in early January 2020 immediately after Chinese officials realized that they had a coronavirus superspreader event at the Wuhan wet market as I described almost three years ago in these pages.
This apparent secrecy on the part of the Chinese has led many people to jump to the conclusion that the Chinese are hiding something sinister—sinister like they secretly created SARS-CoV-2 and accidentally released it and don’t want the world to find out. But, as I have posted several times in these pages, most recently here, there is precious little evidence that supports the notion that the virus came out of a lab. On the other hand, there are several pieces of consistent, but still circumstantial evidence for its natural origin. However, that conclusion is not definitive and could change with new evidence. Hence, we cannot say with certainty that we know where the virus came from. But, remember, it took 14 years and a LOT of work to learn the origin of the virus that caused the first SARS outbreak; it took much longer to discover the source of HIV, and we still do not know where the Ebola virus came from. These things are very hard to learn and take time to figure out.
However, I don’t believe that the best explanation for the Chinese lack of cooperation is that they are hiding something sinister from the world because it seems very unlikely that the virus was man-made. After all, we have several examples of novel coronaviruses popping up in animals and humans, and all have had natural origins. And as I described in my prior post in this series, it is next to impossible that the virus was accidentally released from the Wuhan labs since they really did not work live viruses at all. I think one of two other explanations for Chinese intransigence is more plausible.
The least likely alternative explanation is that WIV lab safety protocols for handling dangerous pathogens were substandard and for the Chinese to allow access to lab records would reveal to the world how careless they were. Perhaps they were concerned about their world image and did not want to be embarrassed. It could deleteriously affect their R&D collaborations with other countries. But, we already had an idea that their safety protocols were not up to Western standards so this would not have been a terribly shocking revelation. That is why I don’t think this is the most likely explanation for the lack of cooperation and transparency.
More likely, however, I think the lack of cooperation probably reflects the general and significant deterioration in science and technology collaboration between China and the US that has been going on for five years. This was the topic of a long article in the Wall Street Journal just a few days ago. In fact, US-China science and tech cooperation has gotten so bad in recent years that US lawmakers are pushing to let a long-standing agreement between the two counties to cooperate broadly on science and technology lapse. It was originally signed in 1979 and renewed every five years since, but will expire this month if not renewed as several lawmakers are pushing.
A once highly productive cooperative science and technology agreement between the US and China seems to have begun falling apart in 2018, before COVID, according to the WSJ article. That is when the US DoJ launched its China Initiative to ferret out Chinese economic espionage. Over time the program increasingly focused on interactions between US universities and Chinese institutions. NIH also launched hundreds of investigations into ties between US science and China. While all these investigations largely failed to turn up criminal conduct, they understandably put a major damper on further cooperation between China and the US. They also led to an exodus of Chinese scientists from American labs. Given all that, it is not surprising that Chinese officials are not opening the doors and books of the Wuhan labs to us.
Thus, this lack of cooperation regarding access to the Wuhan labs is happening as cooperation is seriously deteriorating across the scientific spectrum, not just at the Wuhan labs.
The Chinese have done this before: The Communist Chinese government also has a long history of invoking repressive secrecy in order to prevent itself from looking bad. For example, they also clammed up during the first SARS outbreak back in November 2002 and it threw the country into its worst political crisis since the 1989 Tienanmen Square uprising. The government’s first response to the emerging epidemic was to hide the outbreak from its people, and even from its own public health officers. Despite the cloak of a news blackout, SARS spread throughout the country, reaching Beijing that March (viruses don’t read the newspapers!). But doctors do, and the cloak worked on them. Because of all the secrecy, they were caught by surprise by the sudden and prolific appearance of a new disease, and only learned what was going on via surreptitious text messaging.
In April, WHO officials finally were allowed into the country to inspect Beijing hospitals in order to assess what was going on, but sick patients were shuttled out of the hospitals in ambulances to different hospitals or checked into hotels to hide them from inspectors. Because Beijing tried to hide all this from the world, the epidemic, which might have been limited to that city, found its way into 32 countries around the world (viruses are very slippery). Fortunately, those other countries were not as furtive and were able to nip their infections in the bud with public health measures such as quarantines, contact tracings and isolation, and public closings.
SARS allowed the world to see and compare how repressive and self-sensitive China vs other world countries handle a deadly contagion. China was afraid of losing face and tried to hide its problem from public exposure. However, this backfired and showed China to be a repressive country that was willing to risk the safety of its people and the world in order to avoid accountability for the first SARS outbreak.
Therefore, it is not terribly surprising that the Chinese government again is using repressive means to avoid being put into a position of accountability for the second SARS outbreak.
The bottom line is that to think the Chinese are hiding something nefarious and conspiratorial at the WIV is pure speculation and is backed by no evidence at all. So far. There are alternative explanations for the lack of cooperation by the Chinese that are more feasible and reasonable to believe at this point. New information could change this assessment of course, but evidence that the Chinese are hiding something is lacking. Too bad they won't let us confirm that.
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