‘”Everybody was Kung Flu hiding
Man those chinks are as fast as lightning”
A Chinese volunteer from Blue Sky Rescue fumigates and disinfects an area of a local bus station on 7 March in Beijing (Photo: Kevin Frayer/Getty Images)
Suddenly we can look forward to the future with some flickers of optimism. Three successful vaccines against Covid-19 have been developed, with scores more in trials around the world, in what has rightly been hailed as an epic achievement for humankind. The speed of these breakthroughs is astonishing when it is less than a year since the genetic code of this novel coronavirus was shared.
Ignore the petty nationalism and partisan boasts of some pathetic politicians: this is a global triumph that relied on collaborative efforts from thousands of scientists, backed by both businesses and governments.
i’s opinion newsletter: talking points from today
As the Nobel-winning geneticist Sir Paul Nurse wrote last week, these remarkable endeavours were based on “openness, sceptical inquiry and experimentation” by experts pooling knowledge for the benefit of humanity. He called this “a perfect microcosm of the modern scientific approach”, speaking with passion about the need for “sceptical analysis”. Spot on.
Yet in this great moment of scientific triumph, there lurks a danger the same ideals that led to such incredible advances are being abandoned in the crucial search to discover the origin of this pandemic.
We have no idea how this strange new disease erupted in the central Chinese city of Wuhan at some point last year. But having seen the destructive impact of this pandemic from a virus with comparatively low fatality rates, everything possible must be done to find its origins to guard against subsequent eruptions of possibly worse infections.
Yet there are fears the World Health Organisation is appeasing China, which desperately wants to blame other nations as the source, while the scientific establishment is closing ranks to protect some key figures.
Volunteers from the Blue Sky Rescue team disinfect at the Qintai Grand Theatre in Wuhan, Hubei province (Photo: ALY SONG / REUTERS)
Many experts suspect this is a natural zoonotic virus that spilled over from animals, just like Ebola or the Sars epidemic at start of this century. But no intermediate host species has been found – unlike with Sars, which was “amplified” by civet cats in transmission from bats. Some credible figures, however, point to circumstantial evidence swirling around a top-security laboratory in Wuhan, which was carrying out cutting-edge research into bat coronaviruses linked to a similar respiratory disease that killed some miners eight years ago.
Most observers discount fringe theories circulating online about intentional release of bio-weapons – but there is no evidence to rule out accidental leakage at this stage.
What we do know is that Communist Party chiefs in China covered up the outbreak, silenced doctors trying to warn citizens, suppressed death tolls, hid initial evidence of human transmission and are pushing wild theories about the pandemic starting in other places.
Now there are reports of Wuhan doctors being threatened with spying charges that carry the death penalty if they discuss the outbreak with outsiders. We also see President Xi Jinping promoting his autocratic creed around the planet on the basis of his proclaimed success in controlling the virus.
Australia’s call for a probe of the origins helped spark an increasingly bitter row with China, which responded with big tariffs on some key goods. Now the World Health Organisation, which kowtowed to Beijing in the first weeks of this pandemic with disastrous global consequences, has finally launched such an inquiry. Its terms of reference accept this unusual new virus was “well adapted to human transmission from the moment it was first detected” – yet incredibly, give China the right to vet its team of experts and largely seem to rely on their evidence.
The 10-strong WHO team includes Peter Daszak, the British-born boss of a charity whose funding for research with those Wuhan scientists was terminated by the US government on safety grounds. He dismisses talk of leaks as “baseless” conspiracy theory, although we have seen in the past such things can happen.
Now it has emerged he secretly drafted, then persuaded 26 top scientists to sign, a statement in The Lancet condemning “conspiracy theories” suggesting that Covid-19 does not have natural origin. Daszak has also been asked by the journal to chair a task force on the origins, which seems bizarre given his stance and ties to Wuhan.
It is worth noting the top security official at Wuhan Institute of Virology has admitted to safety concerns at the lab. Meanwhile Nature, another influential science journal, has had to clarify a landmark paper written by Shi Zhengli, its star virologist, and two Wuhan colleagues.
This paper, submitted on the day China finally admitted to human transmission, revealed the existence of a virus called RaTG13 that was taken from a horseshoe bat and held on their premises. It is the closest known relative to Sars-Cov-2 – the strain of coronavirus that causes Covid-19 – with 96 per cent genetic similarity.
Other experts asked why more details were not shared on this strain and its origins. It later emerged that, unusually, its name was changed from a virus identified in a previous 2016 academic paper. This obscured its link to the deaths of three miners – falsely said to have died from a fungal infection – from a similar respiratory disease in 2012.
After complaints, Nature asked the Wuhan team to publish an “addendum” that confirms this virus was linked to the miners.
They admitted also having unshared samples of eight more Sars viruses sampled from bats in the mine, which is about 1,000 miles from their city. This is, at the very least, all rather curious.
This virus almost certainly jumped from bats into human beings. But no-one yet knows how or why. Nothing should be discounted without firm evidence. The wild animal market in Wuhan turned out to be a diversion after the theory was discredited by studies.
But many questions remain over the location of its eruption and actions of the Chinese regime. Science, as we have just seen, is a quest based on free examination of available evidence and facts.
We may be on the brink of containing this dreadful disease – but we need similar openness and scrutiny to protect humanity from even worse pandemics in the future.