Investigating the roots of the coronavirus
Since early last year, many experts have voiced apprehensions that the coronavirus, which has wreaked such devastation on us, could have originated in a laboratory. But we took little notice of what many dismissed as conspiracy theories. Last week, United States (US) President Joe Biden ordered intelligence officials to submit an investigation report about this within 90 days, completely changing the narrative.
Before this, former US President Donald Trump had also expressed apprehensions that the virus was not natural but, given his character, people did not take him seriously enough. But, even at that time, many scientists, including Nobel Prize-winning virologists as well as military experts, were voicing similar concerns in Australia, the United Kingdom and France, among other countries. All this suggests that there is a pressing need for a thorough investigation into the antecedents of the virus.
The P-4 lab in Wuhan where the virus is said to have originated is run by Chinese air force scientists. A major general heads the facility. China started recruiting scientists to its army in 2015, a watershed year in Sino-US relations. At that time, Chinese officials told their American counterparts that since their defence system was on a par with that of the US, China deserved to be treated as an equal.
The then President Barack Obama was reportedly displeased with this contention. An Australian news report from that period claimed that the Chinese defence ministry had stated that World War III would be fought and won using biological weapons. This report carries some credibility since it was during this period that China is said to have prepared select military divisions to deal with biological weapons.
US intelligence agencies claim that in November 2019, three scientists at the Wuhan Institute of Virology were infected by the virus. It was only in December that the Chinese authorities informed the World Health Organization (WHO) about this. It is also being questioned why Chinese President Xi Jinping restricted all internal movement in the country at that time but did not place any restrictions on international flights and travel by sea. Through these routes, the virus spread across the world.
Another question is what led China to begin using the RT-PCR test in hospitals in January 2020. Was it already prepared for the virus? The speed with which China brought the pandemic under control is staggering. While the world is grappling with the virus, China is well on the road to recovery. It is the only major country in the world where the annual budget is not in the red. Today, it would seem that biological weapons have replaced nuclear weapons as the currency which determines a nation’s superpower status.
China has been behaving like a major economic and military superpower for quite some time now. In 2001, former US President George W Bush had projected it as his country’s biggest rival. Had it not been for 9/11 that same year, the US and China may have started the battle for supremacy in right earnest. For several years after 9/11, the US was preoccupied with its fight against terror, pushing most other issues onto the backburner. This is why the help that scientists in Wuhan continued to get from many countries in the West, including the US, went largely unnoticed. Most of them could not have known that they may have been helping to create a virus which would one day bring the world to its knees.
But all this knowledge must be proceeded on with great caution. Every calamity or natural disaster brings in its wake a host of conspiracy theories. So, it is imperative that we investigate all claims thoroughly and scientifically. It cannot be forgotten that in the first decade of this century, the US, supported by its allies, destroyed much of Iraq on the grounds that it was in possession of weapons of mass destruction, a contention not borne out as facts unfolded. The world paid the price and the US got needlessly entangled in a war that ultimately yielded no results but which changed the geopolitical map forever.
China is not Iraq. It is the world’s second biggest power in every sphere. Before embarking on any form of action, western countries should examine objectively all claims which have been put forward. China’s record of cooperation with investigations is patchy. China allowed WHO’s team to enter the country 10 months after the outbreak. However, the team was not permitted to visit the Wuhan lab and could study little more than the effect of wet markets on viruses. This obduracy on the part of the Chinese authorities is inexplicable and counterproductive.
Given China’s opacity on the coronavirus pandemic, a matter which concerns us all and which has cost us dearly, we must ask one chilling question. Are we heading towards a new Cold War or something far more dangerous?
Shashi Shekhar is editor-in-chief, Hindustan
The views expressed are personal