Thursday, April 30, 2020
The Wuhan lab mystery deepens
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President Xi Jinping is being questioned within the Party for his handling of the crisis.
An issue has been coming in the news repeatedly during the last few days; the Institute of Virology of Wuhan. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo urged Beijing to give access to the laboratory for US scientists: "We are asking the Chinese Communist Party to allow experts to get into that virology lab so that we can determine precisely where this virus began," Pompeo told Fox News.
Questions of origin
Asked his opinion about the Covid-19 originating from the lab, US President Donald Trump had earlier said that "it seems to make sense," adding that "it was a matter of active investigation within his administration." After analysing the coronavirus's genome, most experts believe that it was not consciously engineered by humans, but it could be the outcome of a technical negligence in the laboratory in Wuhan. The Washington Post reported that US officials who had visited the Wuhan Institute of Virology "sent diplomatic cables to Washington as early as January 2018 warning about safety and management weaknesses at the lab, and stated that the facility's work on bat coronaviruses created a pandemic risk."
On February 23 this year, The South China Morning Post mentioned that the virus may not have originated from the seafood market. The Hong Kong newspaper quoted a study from Xishuangbanna Tropical Botanical Garden under the Chinese Academy of Sciences. The team, led by Dr Yu Wenbin found that the virus had spread within the Seafood Wholesale Market in Wuhan, however, the study suggested that the virus was introduced from outside the market: "The study concerning whether Huanan market is the only birthplace of SARS-CoV-2 is of great significance for finding its source and determining the intermediate host, so as to control the epidemic and prevent it from spreading again," said the study.
While taking a more balanced stand, French President Emmanuel Macron told The Financial Times that it would 'naïve' to suggest China had dealt better with the crisis, he added, things 'happened that we don't know about'. There are reasons for his moderation; France had in the past been actively involved with the lab. After the SARS hit China in 2003, Jiang Zemin the Chinese President contacted one of his friends, Dr. Chen Zhu, who had been trained at Saint-Louis Hospital in Paris; China needed help to study the viruses.
A year later, President Jacques Chirac instructed his Prime Minister, Jean-Pierre Raffarin to work out a Sino-French collaboration with Dr Chen; an accord was sealed in October 2004, and soon the idea of a P4 level laboratory took shape. Designed by French experts and started in 2011, "this cutting-edge tool is a central element in achieving the 2004 intergovernmental agreement to fight against emerging infectious diseases," explained an article in Radio France. At the start, the Wuhan P4 laboratory benefited from the support of the Jean-Mérieux Laboratory in Lyon, considered one of the best.
Many were uncomfortable in France, as China refused to explain what had happened with the P3 biology laboratories that were funded by the Raffarin government after SARS. "The French have been chilled by the lack of transparency of the Chinese," says Antoine Izambard, author of the book Dangerous Liaisons [with Beijing]. According to Radio France: "Fifteen specialized French SMEs lent their support to build the laboratory." In 2015, Alain Mérieux left the co-chairmanship of the Joint Commission supervising the lab. Mérieux explained: "I am giving up the co-chairmanship of P4, a Chinese tool. It belongs to them, even if it was developed with technical assistance from France."
France still believed collaboration was possible. On February 23, 2017, when Bernard Cazeneuve, then Prime Minister of France inaugurated the 'P4' laboratory in Wuhan, he declared: "France is proud to have contributed to the construction of the first high biological security 'P4' laboratory in China." French Minister of Health Marisol Touraine announced that 50 French researchers would take residency at the P4 in Wuhan for five years and Paris would provide technical expertise, as well as training to improve the laboratory's level of bio-safety; but French researchers could never go. China had what it wanted, the lab. The cooperation between Jean Mérieux Institute in Lyon and Wuhan lab never really started. Alain Mérieux admitted that: "there has been no meeting of the Franco-Chinese committee on infectious diseases." The Chinese lab worked without the outside supervision of foreign experts.
The day Cazeneuve inaugurated the P4 lab, the review Nature published an article on the Wuhan Institute: "Some scientists outside China worry about pathogens escaping, …[giving] a biological dimension to geopolitical tensions between China and other nations." The magazine admitted there were concerns surrounding some of these high tech labs.
Surprisingly in January 2020, a Chinese PLA general took over the Institute in Wuhan. Maj Gen Chen Wei, a researcher at the Military Medical Research Institute of the Academy of Military Sciences, became responsible for the research. The lady general is said to have found the first vaccine against the virus on March 16.
All this raises questions which few will discuss. The stakes are high for Beijing. It doesn't want to appear to be the one who spread the virus, and President Xi Jinping is being questioned within the Party for his handling of the crisis. We shall not know the truth for years.