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After the lab-leak theory, US-Chinese relations head downhill

The United States and China could work together in sharing biosecurity-related samples, genetic materials and data, developing protocols and countermeasures against biosafety accidents, promoting transparency in dual-use research of concern, countering disinformation, and strengthening compliance with global health laws, including the Biological Weapons Convention and the International Health Regulations.

But the US push to investigate the lab leak and the political context in both countries likely puts the goal of finding the origins of COVID-19 and many other ambitions at risk………

After the lab-leak theory, US-Chinese relations head downhill, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, By Yanzhong Huang | July 16, 2021  In October, 2018, more than a year before the COVID-19 pandemic, dozens of international trainees visited the Wuhan Institute of Virology for an expansive workshop meant to “promote the cooperation between China and other countries in the field of biosafety.” The attendees, many from developing countries, took classes on virus handling and bioethics, they listened to speeches by Chinese and UN arms control officials, and learned from eminent scientists. For the organizers, the 10-day event was a chance to showcase China’s expertise in biosafety management. And for this, they could hardly have chosen a more perfect location, a prestigious virology institute that had just months earlier opened the country’s first state-of-the-art, specialized facility for safely studying the world’s most dangerous pathogens, a biosafety-level (BSL) 4 lab.

The marketing plan hasn’t paid out.

Two years on, the lofty vision the workshop at the advanced Chinese biolab embodied—one of international collaboration on disease control and scientific research—has disintegrated as the United States and China tangle in an increasingly nasty fight over the origins of the still-raging coronavirus pandemic. In the United States, President Joe Biden, prominent scientists, and once-skeptical mainstream media outlets have collectively revived a hypothesis that was initially largely framed as a conspiracy theory, that the COVID-19 virus could have escaped from the Wuhan lab. Meanwhile, in China, many are convinced COVID-19 started somewhere else, outside of the country.

The Wuhan Institute of Virology now sits at the forefront of the US-China row on the origins of a once-in-a-century pandemic.

From Former President Donald Trump, to Chinese government spokesperson Zhao Lijian, and on to others, combative personalities with stark political agendas have helped draw both countries into a downward spiral of tit-for-tat accusations about who is to blame.

A call for a science-based investigation into the origins of the crises has largely been overshadowed by a geopolitical fight that threatens not only efforts to understand how the pandemic began, but also international efforts to cooperate on biosecurity, public health, and more.

How the lab escape hypothesis was politicized. A seemingly “crafty” virus rapidly spreading in Wuhan—the city that houses China’s only BSL-4 lab in an institute renowned for coronavirus research—was sure to raise eyebrows. Sen. Tom Cotton, a Republican from Arkansas, was among the first US politicians to make the connection between the research lab and the location of the first reported COVID-19 cases. In an interview on Feb. 16, 2020, Cotton noted that a “super laboratory” was only miles away from a seafood market tied to several early infections. “We don’t have evidence that this disease originated there… We need to at least ask the question to see what the evidence says,” he told Fox News host Maria Bartiroma.

Even Shi Zhengli, a leading Chinese virologist who researches SARS-like coronaviruses of bat origin at the institute, recognized the concern, revealing that she initially could not sleep for fear that the outbreak had been caused by a leak of the virus from her lab. Shi has repeatedly denied that the pandemic could have been sparked through research at the Wuhan institute.

“US President Trump’s claim that SARS-CoV-2 was leaked from our institute totally contradicts the facts,” she told Science last summer. “It jeopardizes and affects our academic work and personal life. He owes us an apology.”

Outside of China, influential scientists began to marginalize the so-called “lab-leak theory” before it gained traction. They proved enormously influential in framing it as a conspiracy theory.

A February 2020 letter in the prestigious medical journal The Lancet signed by 27 scientists strongly condemned “conspiracy theories suggesting that COVID-19 does not have a natural origin.” Likewise, a piece by prominent scientists in Nature Medicine published the following month concluded that a laboratory-based scenario was unlikely.

These efforts appear to have guided the course of media reporting and scientific analyses. Although scientific history is replete with examples of pathogens “escaping” from labs, mainstream reporting in the United States typically lumped the lab-escape hypothesis in with COVID-19 conspiracy theories.

Heated rhetoric. But the lab-leak theory never disappeared. And it ran directly counter to Chinese leaders’ initial thinking that a natural event was to blame for the pandemic. And as the lab-leak theory drew attention, China’s position on origins investigations and even the idea that the pandemic began in the country began to shift, subtly at first.

In late February, for instance, Zhong Nanshan, the public face of China’s epidemic control, stated that “given the new developments overseas, [that] the disease … was first detected in China does not mean that it originated in China.” Zhao Lijian, a combative Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson, later cited Zhong’s remarks to refute the frequent characterization of the virus—at least in the United States–as the “Wuhan virus,” as well as the lab-leak thesis.

Chinese officials weren’t subtle for long. And as COVID-19 began to cause serious disruption outside of China, both US and Chinese officials ramped up their rhetoric.

“CDC was caught on the spot. When did patient zero begin in US? How many people are infected? What are the names of the hospitals? It might be US army who brought the epidemic to Wuhan. Be transparent! Make public your data! US owe us an explanation!” Zhao, the foreign ministry spokesman, tweeted on March 12, 2020.

After the spokesman’s tweet, Trump, began to routinely refer to the “Chinese virus” or even “Kung Flu,” inflammatory words that touched a raw nerve in China. Since then, the Chinese public has widely accepted the official narrative exonerating China from any wrongdoing in the pandemic, and China’s social media has become inundated by posts and essays that claim the pandemic came from a US military lab.

The lab-leak theory gains steam. For over a year, the lab-leak theory in the United States remained mainly an obsession of right-wing media and political figures like Trump.

That was the case until May of this year, when 18 scientists published a letter in Science calling for a thorough review of whether the pandemic had been sparked by a lab leak or by natural spillover. Before the letter, researchers may have been reluctant to legitimize the lab-leak hypothesis, perhaps, as one letter signer put it, out of fear of being “associated with Trump,” the chief backer of the theory. Embroiled in the US-China blame game, conversation around a lab leak had become subject to the logic of realpolitik, not science and peer review. Some US government officials opposed further probing out of fear that it might “open a can of worms” given the government’s role in funding Shi’s bat research in Wuhan……….

The revitalized theory and US-China relations. Like it or not, the resurgence of the lab-leak theory highlights a compelling need for a thorough and impartial investigation. The seemingly mounting evidence pointing to a lab escape (almost all of it circumstantial), in conjunction with the tremendous (and often obvious) misinformation and obfuscation on the pandemic’s origins—whether from Trump or Zhao—calls for greater international cooperation over a whole range of issues pertaining to biosafety and biosecurity, not less.

The United States and China could work together in sharing biosecurity-related samples, genetic materials and data, developing protocols and countermeasures against biosafety accidents, promoting transparency in dual-use research of concern, countering disinformation, and strengthening compliance with global health laws, including the Biological Weapons Convention and the International Health Regulations.

But the US push to investigate the lab leak and the political context in both countries likely puts the goal of finding the origins of COVID-19 and many other ambitions at risk………

The Biden administration is now pledging to find answers sooner than what a scientific investigation would require: A majority of members of the intelligence community do not believe there is sufficient information to assess which pandemic origins theory—natural or lab-leak—is right…………

A self-fulfilling bioweapons prophecy? The growing mutual suspicion and finger pointing between the United States and China may also exacerbate the security dilemma they face. It might even threaten compliance with the Biological Weapons Convention, the treaty banning bioweapons. On both sides, various figures have raised the prospect that military research may have been involved in the origins of the pandemic. Officials have used the insinuations to highlight supposedly suspicious biodefense activities in the other country. In the United States, the lab-escape theory has also encouraged some to entertain darker theories that suggest a cover-up of an accidental leak by the Chinese government, and worse, a Chinese program to weaponize the pathogen behind COVID-19. To counter these accusations, China has stepped up efforts to insinuate the pandemic was caused by an accident in a US military lab………….

More broadly, the lab-leak theory—however legitimate it may be as a line of inquiry—may fuel anti-Americanism in China and anti-Asian sentiment in the United States, further undermining the public support for bilateral cooperation over public health and other issues. Already, negative views in China about the United States and in the United States about China are on the rise. Driven by disinformation and obfuscation efforts, the blame game over COVID-19 will further curtail popular support for cooperation.

Foreign policies, in turn, will reflect hostile public opinion………….

The fear of being accused of engaging anything illicit may disincentivize US-China scientific collaboration between the United States and China, even in relatively safe areas, like public health infrastructure building. In addition, the dampened interest in science and technology collaboration also means that the Biden administration may have to expend more political capital to sustain cooperation in other areas both countries have attached importance to, such as climate change.

Uncovering the origins of a major outbreak is a complex process. After the 2002-2003 SARS epidemic, researchers took 13 years to identify the animal reservoir of that coronavirus, without facing nearly the degree of politicization as any investigation of COVID-19 will encounter. It can be an impossible mission when science succumbs to politics in deciding how a probe should be conducted and what story should be told.

Largely because of the perverted political logic that surrounded it, the lab escape hypothesis was not officially recognized as a legitimate theory until recently. Paradoxically, the revival of the theory under the Biden administration has raised the political stakes even higher, compromising the prospect of US-China cooperation and making a full and transparent investigation even less likely.  https://thebulletin.org/2021/07/after-the-lab-leak-theory-us-chinese-relations-head-downhill/?utm_source=Newsletter&utm_medium=Email&utm_campaign=MondayNewsletter07162021&utm_content=DisruptiveTechnologies_AfterTheLabLeakTheory_07162021

July 20, 2021 - Posted by | China, politics international, USA

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