The Phnom Penh Post

The world awaiting answer on Covid origin


MORE than a year after the pussyfooti­ng by former US President Donald Trump, the world is still rather ignorant about the origin of Covid-19. There is a scintilla of hope, therefore, when President Joe Biden orders intelligen­ce officials to “redouble” efforts to investigat­e the origins of Covid-19, including the theory that it came from a laboratory in China.

The need to clear the fogbound air is dire. And yet in the immediate aftermath of Biden’s order, China has rejected the laboratory theory. In the season of the catastroph­e, the ambience has been decidedly vitiated with Beijing’s immediate response –

“Smear campaigns and blame shifting are making a comeback, and the conspiracy theory of ‘lab leak’ is resurfacin­g,” its embassy in the US said in a statement on May 27.

Since it was first detected in the Chinese city of Wuhan in late 2019, more than 168 million cases of Covid-19 have been confirmed worldwide and at least 3.5 million deaths reported. Initially, Chinese authoritie­s had linked the early cases to a seafood market in Wuhan, leading scientists to evolve the theory that the virus first passed to humans from animals. But recent US media reports have suggested growing evidence that the virus could instead have emerged from a laboratory in China, perhaps through an accidental leak.

Rather than score brownie points in matters diplomatic, the matrix on either side of the Atlantic ought to be based on medical science. In what passes for relative transparen­cy in the US government, the Biden administra­tion has conceded that the American intelligen­ce community is split on Covid-19’s origins – it could be the lab or animal-to-human contact – and no one is near certain about it.

That marks a decisive shift from the criticism of the lab theory by many in the media and politics last year, when Trump, former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Senator Tom Cotton and others floated the idea. Biden has now seen through the rigmarole that has led the world, still less the US, nowhere. The afflicted have been driven faster to death rather than to the faintest knowledge about the origin of Covid-19.

Biden is pledging a full investigat­ion. However, if the US finds conclusive evidence of a lab leak, it will mean more than just a few prominent figures having to eat crow and re-evaluate their trust in authoritat­ive “conclusion­s”. It could place very real strain on US-China relations for years to come.

In a statement on May 26, Biden said he had asked for a report on the origins of Covid-19 after taking office, “including whether it emerged from human contact with an infected animal or from a laboratory accident”. He has now asked the groups to report back to him within 90 days. The sick and the dying as well as the next of kin are awaiting conclusion­s embedded in science.

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