ON THE MARGIN: Biden revives hunt for COVID-19 origins

New DelhiWritten By: Shastri RamachandaranUpdated: Jun 01, 2021, 07:55 PM IST

US President Joe Biden (file photo) Photograph:(AFP)

Story highlights

As if on cue, British intelligence agencies, scientists and medical journals in the UK have come up with reports that hold the lab escape of the virus to be “feasible”.

Nineteen months after coronavirus began stalking the globe to claim at least 3.5 million human lives, the world has no clue to the origin of this devastating pathogen.

Speculation abounds over whether the deadly virus, SARS-CoV-2, which along with its mutations causes COVID-19, emerged naturally through human contact with an infected animal or as the result of an accidental leak from a laboratory in Wuhan, China, in December 2019.

The WHO’s report ruling out an accidental escape of the virus from the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) failed to settle the issue satisfactorily. The report was questioned for a number of reasons including that it was cursory, done without access to adequate data or evidence from the Chinese government lab and its conclusions arrived at under pressure from Beijing.

In the event, it is not surprising that US President Joe Biden has asked his country’s intelligence agencies to redouble their efforts to establish the origin of the virus and come up with a report in 90 days.

Biden’s predecessor, Donald Trump and his secretary of state Mike Pompeo had kept up an unrelenting tirade against China, including accusations that: the virus was man-made; had escaped from the Wuhan lab in the course of secret experiments; and, experiments involving the virus were for military purposes, or what is known as “gain of function”. There were few takers for these, if only because Trump and his election team projected Candidate Biden as an agent of China.

Some may attribute Biden’s call for a fresh probe to his domestic compulsion to puncture Trump and demolish his constituency founded on conspiracy theories. Yet the probe has been welcomed beyond the US-led West, and India, the outgoing chair of the WHO executive board, strongly favours more studies to trace the origin of the virus.

The reason is that the WHO report does not convincingly answer how the virus came to be amongst us, from where it originated and who was Patient Zero. Besides, no primary evidence by way of data, reports, findings or notes of the scientists involved in research at the Wuhan lab was available to WHO’s team.

This lack of transparency on the part of the Chinese authorities had kept alive the demand for a deeper independent international probe. Of course, nothing is likely to be found in Wuhan nor will China make available any more evidence or records than it has.

Biden’s call for an enquiry is not directed at gaining any new evidence from China. Therefore, this would mean: US intelligence reviewing the data and evidence collected since the pandemic’s outbreak; analysing existing evidence, not all of which may have been examined by their computers and analysts; and, reviewing databases for any clues that may have been overlooked.

At a larger level, the US announcement to bring out a new report lends credence to the theory of the virus having come for WIV, which was dismissed as a conspiracy theory in the past.

It is also an implicit call to friends and allies of the US to bring forth evidence that they can gather through their own intelligence agencies and science institutions.

As if on cue, British intelligence agencies, scientists and medical journals in the UK have come up with reports that hold the lab escape of the virus to be “feasible”.

The possibility of the investigation ordered by Biden tracing the origin of COVID-19 to the Chinese lab is unlikely. Even so, the enquiry is necessary for Biden to put this political hot potato behind him, for moving on to his other priorities.

However, for the US report to be credible, it must reveal the role of American institutions and scientists who had long-standing cooperation and projects with the Wuhan lab.

Dr Anthony Fauci, the world’s most authoritative voice on combating the pandemic, was also associated with the WIV; and, one doctor has admitted to the US National Institute of Health funding ($600,000) the Wuhan lab.

What did US cooperation and joint projects with WIV entail? Which are the institutions and scientists from other countries that, over the years, were associated with WIV? How much of US and western funding did WIV receive and what were these projects? Were these “gain of function” research for military purposes?

Unless the US enquiry initiated by Biden answers these questions, the report may not carry very much more credibility than the WHO’s conclusions about the origin of the virus.

(The author is Editorial Consultant, WION TV.)

(Disclaimer: The views of the writer do not represent the views of WION or ZMCL. Nor does WION or ZMCL endorse the views of the writer.)