Seven years ago, Malaysian Airlines flight MH370 disappeared from radar and was believed to have crashed into the Indian Ocean. Fragmentary debris washed up on shore many months later, but without the aircraft’s flight recorder (‘black box’). We still don’t know what happened on board that resulted in the deaths of all 239 passengers and crew. Recent reporting from the US intelligence community suggests that the origins of Covid-19 could become another unsolved modern mystery.
The equivalent of Covid-19’s ‘black box’ can be found in lab data and hospital data from Wuhan, China (where the virus originated). But Chinese authorities haven’t shared the data with international health experts, instead declaring the case closed after a perfunctory study. Beijing has denounced proposals to investigate the matter and its trade sanctions against Australia demonstrate that further calls for investigation will bring punishment. As a result, more than a year into a global pandemic that has killed at least 3.5 million people and counting, we still don’t even know where Covid-19 came from. Chief presidential medical advisor Anthony Fauci told the US Congress last week, “I still believe that the most likely scenario is that this was a natural occurrence, but no one knows that 100% for sure.”
Preparing for and ideally preventing the next global public health crisis requires us to understand the origins of this one. But that requires transparency and accountability, both in short supply in Beijing. For over a year, some experts have speculated that, contrary to China’s claims, the coronavirus might have leaked from the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV), a government laboratory. If true, this suggests Beijing deliberately misled the world from the outset when it developed its narrative blaming the outbreak on zoonotic transmission from live animals being sold in Wuhan’s wet markets.
Former Obama administration official Jamie Metzl told me that although 40% of the earliest infections China reported had no connection to wet markets, Beijing actively promoted that wet market origin story. “On top of that, they started immediately destroying samples, hiding records, arresting Chinese journalists,” he said. They also placed a gag order on Chinese scientists, preventing them from writing or speaking on the subject. After it successfully diluted WHO’s call for a full independent international investigation down to a mere joint study, China then directed the inquiry into the origin of the virus towards a single hypothesis – transmission from a wet market. That was, says Metzl, “the original sin because it avoided answering the question how does the virus from bat reach humans, through what medium?”
Suspicions are deepening following recent revelations that in November 2019 – a month before the first officially acknowledged case of Covid-19 infection – three WIV researchers were hospitalised with Covid-like symptoms. This could of course be an unfortunate coincidence, but the lab’s apparent effort to conceal their illness does not inspire confidence in China’s commitment to the truth.
Frustrated by WHO’s inability to get the information it needs, President Biden is pressing the US intelligence community to direct its resources towards a definitive conclusion to the fundamental questions of who was Covid-19’s patient zero, and how did that person get infected? He also urged China to “participate in a full, transparent, evidence-based international investigation and to provide access to all relevant data and evidence”.
India, the outgoing chair of WHO executive board, has described the WHO convened study of Covid’s origin as “an important first step” deserving followup. Even as funeral pyres are burning and the bodies of the stricken float down the Ganges, China refuses to share scientific data that could unlock the mysteries of what happened in Wuhan and how we might prevent the next pandemic. Unlike the MH370 ‘black box’, believed to be lost somewhere in the depths of the Indian Ocean, clues about Covid-19’s origins look set to remain hidden away by the Chinese government, unless redoubled effort by US intelligence succeeds in ferreting them out.
Views expressed above are the author’s own.
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