The Washington Post

What good comes from playing a blame game with China over covid?

- This column is excerpted from Leana S. Wen’s Post Opinions newsletter, The Checkup. To sign up, go to­sletter.

To prevent the next pandemic, our energy is better spent shoring up future defenses than finger-pointing over the past. But clearly not everyone agrees. Following news of the Energy Department’s shift in its assessment of covid-19’s origins, debate continues to swirl over whether it was caused by a laboratory accident or animal-to-human spillover. House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Michael Mccaul (R-tex.) went so far as to argue on CNN on Monday that “some people need to be held accountabl­e, whether that be in a civil context or criminal liability context.” He mentioned the possibilit­y of sanctions against China as well as reparation­s “for killing millions of people across the world.”

These comments suggest an intentiona­lity behind the spread of covid-19 that neither scientists nor intelligen­ce experts have found any evidence for. To the contrary, as much as U.S. intelligen­ce agencies disagree about the coronaviru­s’s origins, they agree on one aspect: This was not intentiona­l. It was not an act of bioterrori­sm. No one intended to weaponize a virus to cause a global pandemic.

This fact bears repeating, and I hope Mccaul and others who have been calling for “accountabi­lity” will be clear with Americans to distinguis­h between an intentiona­l act and their preferred theory of a laboratory accident.

And they should be reminded that such a mishap could have happened in the United States, too.

In 2014, when the Food and Drug Administra­tion conducted an office cleanup to move to a new location, it found hundreds of vials of virus samples in an unsecured storage room. Six of them turned out to be vials of the deadly smallpox virus. Astonishin­gly, no one knew they were there. It’s possible the vials had been there since the 1950s but were forgotten in subsequent inventorie­s.

Also in 2014, some 75 staff members at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention were exposed to anthrax after scientists failed to inactivate the anthrax bacterium before sending it to three labs that weren’t prepared to handle it. In a separate incident, the CDC inadverten­tly sent what it thought were harmless strains of flu but actually was the H5N1 avian flu.

More recently, in November 2022, poliovirus was found in the wastewater of a lab in the Netherland­s that conducted research on polio. One lab employee was infected as a result of this mishap, which was described in the Eurosurvei­llance journal as an “unnoticed breach of containmen­t at the facility.”

None of these incidents resulted in mass outbreaks. But they could have. If they did, what would accountabi­lity have looked like?

Certainly, mistakes should be identified and systems put into place to prevent them, as was done in the occurrence­s above. But if an outbreak spread beyond our shores as a result of human error, should other countries impose sanctions or require reparation­s? Should they go so far as to demand civil and criminal penalties for lab workers?

And what about diseases that don’t originate in the lab but could be attributed to farming practices, deforestat­ion, climate change and other activities that bring animals — and animal pathogens — closer to humans? Should the Democratic Republic of Congo and South Sudan, where the first two outbreaks of Ebola occurred, be on the hook for costs borne by other countries from Ebola? Should the United States, where Lyme disease was first identified, be held responsibl­e to the world for its effects?

Such blame games are not conducive to the goal of preventing pandemics. They could deter researcher­s from engaging in scientific investigat­ions crucial to the developmen­t of vaccines and treatments. They could also give fodder to conspiracy theories and fuel violence against people of certain ethnic origins, as we have already seen in the rise in anti-asian attacks. And if countries are worried about liability and retributio­n, it could further disincenti­vize global health cooperatio­n.

None of this absolves the Chinese government, whose obstructio­n of internatio­nal investigat­ions has made it such that we might never find the true cause of covid. Chinese officials also made many tragic errors in failing to contain the coronaviru­s early on.

But it’s not going to make the world safer to threaten punishment. Political leaders should consider that the shoe could have easily been on the other foot. Instead of further inflaming tensions, we should reiterate that while the cause of the coronaviru­s remains unknown, what is known is that its spread was not intentiona­l. And we must emphasize that preventing the next pandemic requires internatio­nal cooperatio­n, including on the critical issue of laboratory safety.

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