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    The issue of COVID-19 origin tracing should be handled as a scientific one without political influence
    By Ma Miaomiao  ·  2021-08-13  ·   Source: NO.33 AUGUST 19, 2021
     
    A police officer peers out of a minivan before entering Fort Detrick in Maryland following a shooting on April 6 (XINHUA)

    Have you ever read The Wolf and the Lamb from Aesop's Fables? In the story, the wolf tries every excuse to stir up trouble with the lamb as he wants to eat it. The moral of this story? When a villain wants to do you harm, he does not care if the excuse is inappropriate.

    Against the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic raging on worldwide, this seems quite the case when speaking about origin tracing issues. Several countries have been trying to discredit the findings of the first-phase probe conducted by the World Health Organization (WHO) in Wuhan and continue to blame China by circling back to the so-called "lab leak" theory—discarding all science and facts.

    China was the world's first country to report confirmed cases, and has thus far invited the WHO experts to the country twice for the purpose of origin tracing. The expert team concluded in its report in March that a lab leak was "extremely unlikely."

    However, in July WHO claimed there had been a "premature push" to dismiss the lab leak theory, a jaw-dropping step back from its previous statement. "The findings of the WHO-led [research] in Wuhan into the origins of COVID-19 were quickly discredited because they didn't fit the U.S. narrative," Tom Fowdy, a British political and international relations analyst, wrote in an article recently published on the website of Russian media outlet Russia Today.

    "Relentless pressure from the U.S. has caused WHO to suggest a second probe into the origin of COVID-19, focusing on Chinese labs," he said.

    China firmly rejected the plan, as it discounted previous research outcomes and ran counter to common sense and science, Huo Zhengxin, a professor of law at the China University of Political Science and Law, said.

    Future origin tracing efforts should be an extension of the first round, focusing on the virus' natural origin in animals, and expanding well beyond China to pursue clues found globally, Zeng Yixin, Vice Minister of the National Health Commission, said at a press conference on July 22. They should inherit the science-based and cooperative principle held throughout the study's first stage in China, he added.

    A scientific matter

    Political leaders and experts worldwide have strongly opposed politicizing the issue of COVID-19 origin tracing. Many scientists have already refuted the lab leak conspiracy theory based on exact evidence.

    On July 5, 24 leading experts from around the world published an article in medical journal The Lancet, stating that the lab leak theory lingers on without scientifically validated evidence.

    "There is currently no evidence that SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes COVID-19) has a laboratory origin. There is no evidence that any early cases had any connection to the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV)... nor evidence that the WIV possessed or worked on a progenitor of SARS-CoV-2 prior to the pandemic," scientists from the U.S., the United Kingdom and Australia wrote in a preprint paper on Zenodo, a European research data sharing platform, on July 7.

    In a joint paper published in Science China Life Sciences journal on July 16, 22 Chinese and overseas scientists applied a classic evolutionary theory to elaborate on the reasons why SARS-CoV-2 could only have come from nature, rather than the hands of man.

    For the next phase, the origin tracing work should be conducted under the overall planning and coordination of WHO and be wholly based on the first phase of study. "It is necessary to ensure that scientists are the main actors in the research," Zeng said.

    However, U.S. President Joe Biden in May ordered the U.S. intelligence community to produce a report on the origin of COVID-19 within 90 days, with a presumption of guilt targeting China.

    Matthew Kavanagh, Director of the Global Health Policy and Politics Initiative at Georgetown University, said if Biden were to find a scientific explanation of the COVID-19 origin, he would have tasked health institutes instead of intelligence agencies.

    "This tells us that [it] is a political and an intelligence story: not a story mostly about science," Kavanagh told U.S. magazine Rolling Stone. "And so we should understand the picture in that sense, and not be naive about it," he added. "We're in a place where politics is driving people's scientific understanding in a dangerous way."

    Politicizing critical issues is a disease that has afflicted the world for a long time, Ali el-Hefny, Egypt's former Ambassador to China and former Deputy Foreign Minister, told Xinhua News Agency.

    No double standards

    The U.S. is the country that saw the most infections and deaths in the pandemic and whose fight against the outbreak has brought along a flurry of unanswered questions. Yet, somehow, all origin tracing undertakings in the country have proved inadequate thus far.

    Going back to June and July 2019, U.S. media outlets started to report on various issues involving the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases labs at Fort Detrick. In late July 2019, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a "cease and desist" to halt most research at Fort Detrick. There were reports on the unexplained outbreak of a respiratory disease in north Virginia that very same month, as well as a rise in vaping-related lung injury with symptoms highly similar to COVID-19, which swept through several states in the U.S.

    The biggest mystery, then, remains whether the shutdown of the biochemical research base at Fort Detrick, storing some of the world's most deadly and infectious viral strains in the world, has any connections with the pandemic and when the first infection occurred in the U.S.

    Such queries have not been pulled out of thin air. U.S. scientist Ralph Baric, a top-notch epidemiologist dubbed "the coronavirus hunter," has received long-term support from the U.S. military and offered his research services to Fort Detrick.

    He has developed a multitude of genetic techniques to enhance the infectivity of existing bat coronaviruses in collaboration with Shi Zhengli, a virologist from the WIV. According to a 2015 paper by Baric published in Nature Medicine, he and his colleagues created a wholly new coronavirus from an existing one through gain-of-function transformation research. The chimeric virus was much more pathogenic than its parental virus and its research was approved by the U.S. National Institutes of Health, according to Baric.

    Shi is only the second corresponding author of the paper. All of the work was done in Baric's laboratory in North Carolina and Shi's main contribution consisted of preparing the viral specimens discovered in China. While the West groundlessly accused Shi of a possible laboratory mishap, Baric and his research seemed to be given a pass.

    Even in the face of mounting doubts, the U.S. maintains its refusal to release critical information regarding Fort Detrick's closure under the pretext of "national security."

    A global issue

    "China raised the alarm over the virus, alerting the world of its arrival, but it does not necessarily have its origins in China unless and until we have seen a fair investigation," Muhammad Asif Noor, Director of the Pakistan-based Institute of Peace and Diplomatic Studies, told CGTN.

    According to Zeng, the COVID-19 source tracing is a global issue, demanding an investigation which should be conducted across multiple countries worldwide rather than in a single nation.

    Liang Wannian, head of the Chinese experts on the joint WHO research mission, said results of ongoing studies in various countries showed that this coronavirus emerged in multiple places in the world before the time we knew about its existence.

    For example, samples from November 2019 demonstrated that a SARS-CoV-2 in situ hybridization reaction was detected in multiple elements of the skin biopsy of an Italian woman. In mid-December 2019, the prevalence of neutralizing antibodies reportedly increased in France. Samples from December 27, 2019, showed that the throat swab of a French patient with hemoptysis tested positive for coronavirus. At least five states in the U.S. alone saw COVID-19 infections before the first confirmed case in the country.

    "These examples show that Wuhan may not have been the ground zero for virus spillover," Liang said, adding that the virus most likely had undergone a complicated transmission cycle between animals, humans and objects.

    The earlier mission organized by WHO also concluded that the virus most likely jumped from an animal species, probably bats, to humans via an intermediate host, while its direct transmission from animals to humans and spread via the cold chain were also deemed possible.

    Based on these findings, Liang said concerted efforts should home in on researching the natural evolution of the virus and hunting for animal hosts. Chinese scientists have completed a great deal of work on this already, broadening their scope of testing from food markets in Wuhan to upstream suppliers as well as farmed and wild animal samples from across the country, but "no positive antibody or antigen results have been reported," he said. 

    (Print Edition Title: IN WITH SCIENCE, OUT WITH POLITICS)

    Copyedited by Elsbeth van Paridon

    Comments to mamm@bjreview.com

    WHO Report on Global Tracing of COVID-19 Origins

    The World Health Organization (WHO) released a report on the global tracing of the origins of COVID-19 on March 30, following joint research with China.

    A total of 34 experts from WHO and China made an assessment of the likelihood of possible transmission pathway from January 14 to February 10 in Wuhan.

    According to the report, the introduction of COVID-19 through an intermediary host is "likely to very likely," introduction through cold chain food products is "possible," and introduction through a laboratory incident is "extremely unlikely."

    The experts also put forward recommendations for future research, including developing a comprehensive information database, conducting further retrospective and systematic research around earlier cases and possible hosts, and furthering the understanding of the role cold chain food products may have played in the transmission of the virus.

    Though the process of finding the sources of the virus is still ongoing, evidence and data included in this report offer some key glimpses. For example, the team reviewed data from published studies produced by different countries that suggested earlier circulation of COVID-19.

    "Some of the suspected positive samples were detected even earlier than the first case in Wuhan, suggesting the possibility of missed circulation in other countries," the report said, adding that it is important to investigate these potential early events.

    (Source: Xinhua News Agency)

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