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Covid 19 coronavirus: Wuhan lab leak story looks set to change the world


U.S. intelligence reports claim that several scientists got seriously sick at a lab in Wuhan weeks before China confirmed its first Covid-19 case. Video / NBC

OPINION:

First it was lockdown, then test and trace, and finally vaccines. Now, seemingly, the UK Government hopes for Covid salvation by effectively banning foreign holidays, a strategy filled with so many loopholes, waivers and inconsistencies as to be scarcely worth the paper it is written on.

If it is the Delta variant the restrictions are meant to protect us from, it’s too late. The horse has already bolted.

The pandemic’s longer term geopolitical ramifications are, meanwhile, looking ever more ominous, including potentially a complete breakdown in relations with China.

Covid is fast becoming a lightning rod for one of those decisive moments in history, a great shifting of the tectonic plates which sees nearly 50 years of deepening economic integration between East and West go powerfully into reverse.

Release of a mammoth cache of emails to and from Dr Anthony Fauci, chief medical adviser to the White House, has brought China’s culpability in the origins of the disease firmly back into the public eye.

It turns out that Fauci was alerted to the possibility that the virus could have leaked from a Wuhan laboratory as early as January 2020, or well before the disease began to take hold in the West.

Fauci said subsequently that he was “not convinced” by the official Chinese and World Health Organisation explanation that the disease originated naturally via a local wet market.

Dr Anthony Fauci appears at a press briefing at the White House. Photo / AP
Dr Anthony Fauci appears at a press briefing at the White House. Photo / AP

Confusingly, Fauci also continues to state that the most likely origin is a jumping of species. Indeed, in one email exchange he is thanked by an organisation which provided funding for research at the Wuhan Institute of Virology for stating publicly that the evidence supported a natural origin, not a lab release.

Be that as it may, the reason all this has assumed such importance is not because of the veracity of the allegations or otherwise.

Personally, I have always found the idea of an accidental lab leak to be easily the most plausible explanation. The circumstantial evidence is just too hard to ignore.

The wider scientific community has questions to answer on why it was so determined to dismiss the idea as a conspiracy theory.

Vocal support from Donald Trump for the idea of a lab leak didn’t exactly help its case, admittedly, but that’s no reason to dismiss the possibility out of hand. Good science is about being open to and testing rival hypotheses.

Many virologists have been far too happy to accept a self-serving official explanation for which there is as little evidence as the alternative lab leak theory. In any case, it is very unlikely we’ll ever get to the bottom of it.

A security official moves journalists away from the Wuhan Institute of Virology after a World Health Organisation investigative team arrived in Wuhan early this year. Photo / AP
A security official moves journalists away from the Wuhan Institute of Virology after a World Health Organisation investigative team arrived in Wuhan early this year. Photo / AP

As Sir Richard Dearlove, former head of MI6, told The Daily Telegraph last week, if there is any hard evidence of a lab leak, it will in all probability already have been destroyed.

The Chinese authorities are never going to admit to such a catastrophic accident. To the contrary, they do nothing to discourage rival conspiracy theories, widely circulating in Chinese social media, that the virus in fact came from a US lab, and was then transmitted to China via a visiting US army sports team.

As I say, people – and governments – will believe what they want, and it will never be proved one way or the other. This is not like Chernobyl, which shattered the credibility of the Soviet regime; unlike a nuclear meltdown, covering up a lab leak would be relatively easy.

What the hardening of positions does do, however, is act as a conduit for a wider process of bifurcation between West and East.

Richard Nixon’s visit to China in 1972, after 25 years of Chinese isolation, promised a more hopeful and less confrontational world in which rival economies and political systems would converge into a harmonious whole.

China’s accession at the turn of the century to the World Trade Organisation seemed finally to bring Nixon’s vision to fruition.

Chinese communist party leader Mao Zedong, left, and US President Richard Nixon shake hands as they meet in Beijing, China, 1972. Photo / AP
Chinese communist party leader Mao Zedong, left, and US President Richard Nixon shake hands as they meet in Beijing, China, 1972. Photo / AP

But now it’s all coming apart at the seams. Far from growing to be more like us, China’s centralising instincts have returned with a vengeance under President Xi Jinping, and with them a much more assertive, even triumphalist, approach to the West and the rest of the world.

China’s sense of inevitable Western decline and Chinese ascendancy began with the global financial crisis, which seemed both to confirm Western economic incompetence and turbocharged China’s relative economic catch-up.

“You were my teacher,” Wang Qishan, the vice-president, told Hank Paulson, then US treasury secretary, in 2008. “But now I am in my teacher’s domain, and look at your system, Hank. We aren’t sure we should be learning from you anymore.”

That sense of superiority has been compounded by the pandemic, where the Chinese authorities have contrasted their own apparent success in brutally containing the virus, allowing the economy to stage a rapid recovery, with the seeming failings of the West, where deaths have been far, far higher – in part because of our love of individual freedom – and the economic damage much deeper.

This could change. Western vaccines are proving much more effective than Chinese alternatives, lending weight to the idea of continued Western superiority via technological prowess, while the US economy is now staging a remarkable recovery which should see it regain all the growth lost to Covid by the end of the year.

What is also true is that China’s days of free riding on the West are well and truly over. Last week’s decision by the Biden administration to ban Americans from investing in dozens of Chinese defence and technology companies marks a further escalation in hostilities which sees both countries attempting to decouple one from the other.

But it is all going rather too quickly for China’s liking. Growth in internal demand is unlikely to happen fast enough to compensate for the speed of Western disengagement, and the consequent loss of export markets.

China has controlled the pandemic better than many other places, enhancing Xi Jinping's position as leader. Photo / AP
China has controlled the pandemic better than many other places, enhancing Xi Jinping’s position as leader. Photo / AP

Xi’s dream of a “dual circulation”, self-reliant and contained economy, is not yet there.

The Wuhan lab leak theory, whether legitimate or not, provides cover for and greatly enhances this defining shift in the global geopolitical and economic landscape.

On both sides of the divide, it will entrench a “them and us” mentality. A baited dragon, moreover, becomes a very much more dangerous one, unpredictably lashing out wherever it senses weakness.

China’s repressive one child policy is meanwhile coming home to haunt in a demographic time bomb of ageing and population decline which has left millions of young men with no one to marry.

In recognition of the problem, China last week lifted the restrictions to three children per household, but too late. The die is already cast.

We are unlikely ever to know the truth about the origins of Covid, but since when did truth determine the course of history?

The Wuhan lab leak narrative is one of those defining stories which encapsulates a whole raft of seething resentments and rivalries. A new, and more dangerous, era dawns.



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