As coronavirus continues to exact a huge toll on the economy and human lives across the world, the war of words between the US and China over the origin of coronavirus shows no sign of de-escalation. The latest row threatens to turn the US-China relationship, already frayed due to the trade war, from bad to worse.
Over the last few weeks, the US President Donald Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have repeatedly claimed that the coronavirus originated from the Wuhan Institute of Virology in Hubei province’s capital city of Wuhan. The outbreak was first detected last December here. The two leaders have maintained that Beijing has refused to provide access to international scientists to learn what actually happened.
China, on the other hand, has fiercely rebutted all the accusations saying it’s a ‘smear’ campaign whose primary purpose is to give a boost to President Trump’s re-election chances in November this year. The Chinese government has faced significant criticism at home and abroad over its handling of the pandemic, especially during the early days of the outbreak. However, it has constantly denied any wrongdoing.
So, what is this conspiracy around Wuhan and how did it all start?
It all started when a whistleblower doctor in Wuhan, who first sounded a warning that a cluster of virus could go out of hand, was punished in the middle of the night for his admission. Subsequently, the doctor, Li Wenliang, passed away in early February after contracting the same illness (coronavirus) he had informed his medical school classmates about.
Later, the Wuhan City Central Hospital said on the Chinese social media service Weibo, that Li was unfortunately infected during the fight against the novel coronavirus pneumonia epidemic, and that all efforts to save him failed. “We express our deep regret and condolences,” the hospital added.
But even before he died, the doctor had become a kind of a hero to many Chinese when he told the world about the treatment meted out to him at the hands of Chinese authorities. In January this year, he was summoned by police officials and forced to sign a statement that refuted his warning call as an illegal rumour, as per The New York Times.
But over the last few months, he sort of became a powerful icon for frustrated Chinese people who are angry that the virus went unchecked before blowing out of proportion.
Department of Homeland Security report accused China of concealment
Then, a Department of Homeland Security report stated that Beijing concealed the severity of the coronavirus from the world and that it emerged from a laboratory in Wuhan. Following that assertion, US has doubled up on its efforts to label Wuhan as the origin of the novel coronavirus, while China has opposed the smear campaign with equally harsh response. Over the last few days, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo ramped up his attack on China saying there’s a “significant amount of evidence” that Covid-19 emerged from the Wuhan laboratory.
He, however, briefly contradicted the US intelligence agencies’ conclusion while speaking to ABC news that the virus was neither man-made nor genetically modified. When the interviewer pointed out that was not the conclusion of the intelligence agencies, he backtracked, saying: “I’ve seen what the intelligence community has said. I have no reason to believe that they’ve got it wrong.”
China hit back, says show the ‘enormous evidence’
China asked Pompeo to show the ‘enormous evidence’ that he allegedly had on the Wuhan laboratory claim, asserting that this matter is better handled by scientists and not politicians, especially in an election year.
“He (Pompeo) said ‘enormous evidence’. Then show us,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying had said at a media briefing. “Pompeo cannot present any evidence because he does not have any,” Hua added. “This matter should be handled by scientists and professionals instead of politicians out of their domestic political need?”
US’ claim was buttressed by a Department of Homeland report
According to a four-page Department of Homeland Security report dated May 1, as obtained by The Associated Press, “Chinese leaders intentionally concealed the severity of the pandemic from the world in early January”. Interestingly, this rhetoric comes in the wake of Trump administration critics saying the government’s response to Covid-19 was slow and inadequate. This was fodder for Trumps political opponents to accuse him of slamming China in a concerted attempt to deflect criticism at home over handling of the coronavirus.
The report also adds that China held off informing the World Health Organization (WHO) that the “coronavirus was a contagion for much of January so it could order medical supplies from abroad and that its imports of face masks and surgical gowns and gloves increased sharply.”
The report noted that “those conclusions are based on the 95 per cent probability that China’s changes in imports and export behavior were not within normal range.” China informed the WHO of the outbreak on December 31. It contacted the U.S. Centers for Disease Control on Jan. 3 and publicly identified the pathogen as a novel coronavirus on January 8.
The Wuhan laboratory at the heart of US administration’s allegations
The Chine state-run The Wuhan Institute of Virology is at the very core of the Donald Trump administration’s claims that the pandemic originated from here. As per the CNN, WIV is China’s only lab that’s fitted with the highest level of biocontainment known as BSL-4. These labs are specifically designed to investigate some of the world’s deadliest pathogens, such as Covid-19.
The WIV was established after the deadly severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) epidemic that swept across Asia and China in 2002 and 2003. Subsequently, the devastation caused by SARS prompted China to build a BSL-4 laboratory as a way to be prepared for future outbreaks.
Missing Wuhan doc with ‘Covid secrets’ adds more mystery
A leading Chinese virologist from the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV), whose mysterious disappearance sparked speculation about the deadly novel coronavirus emanating from the laboratory, has denied reports of her defection to West with the secrets about the COVID-19.
Shi Zhengli, known as the “Bat Woman” for her passionate research about bats and the viruses associated with them, refuted rumours of her defection on her Chinese social media WeChat account, the state-run media here reported on Saturday.
Denying “rumours” of “defecting to the West”, Shi on her WeChat account wrote, “Everything is alright for my family and me, dear friends!” She also posted nine photos of her recent life, the Global Times reported.
In the post, Shi, reported to be the Director of the WIV, said, “No matter how difficult, it (defecting) shall never happen. We’ve done nothing wrong. With strong belief in science, we will see the day when the clouds disperse and the sun shines.”
Meanwhile, WHO asks US to share evidence on alleged coronavirus origin
Following the volley of words between the two nations over the issue, WHO’s emergencies chief said it hasn’t received any evidence from the US government to back up allegations by President Donald Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo about the alleged origin of coronavirus from a laboratory in the Chinese city of Wuhan. “From our perspective, this remains speculative,” Michael Ryan told reporters in Geneva.
“We have not received any data or specific evidence from the US government relating to the purported origin of the virus.” Ryan said WHO would be “very willing” to receive any such information the US has.
The United States and other countries have accused China of misleading the world about the severity of the outbreak, and there are growing calls for an international inquiry into the origins of the virus. However, there is no evidence to show that it emerged from Wuhan.
(With inputs from PTI)