What is the point of the debate over the origins of Covid-19?
The new assessment of the U.S. Department of Energy, which made headlines in the press, is that the Covid-19 virus may have “leaked from a laboratory”. Although this assessment is at a ‘low confidence level’, it differs from the consensus of intelligence units and scientists. Contrary to the general opinion of government agencies, FBI Director Christopher Wray supported the Department of Energy’s assessment by saying, “The FBI has been evaluating the source of the pandemic for quite some time, most likely a potential laboratory accident.” The White House states that there is no consensus among government agencies on this issue. Despite this, the issue of the origin of the pandemic, which is on Washington’s list of complaints about China, is again on the agenda, creating a new element of pressure against China.
China’s lack of transparency and the lack of confidence in the statements of international institutions such as the World Health Organization created doubts about the source of the virus and caused many conspiracy theories to become popular. An article published by the leading epidemic disease experts of the U.S. at the beginning of 2020 and which was effective in the course of the discussions, did not give credit to the theory that the virus originated in the laboratory, and highlighted other explanations. Recent internal memos suggest that more possibilities were given to laboratory theory in the lead-up to the writing of this article. It was claimed that scientists tried to refute this theory early on and that the reason for this was the research funds that the Wuhan Institute of Virology received from the American National Institute of Health.
In such epidemics, it is known how important it is to detect the first patient as quickly as possible in the fight against the virus. Despite this, China’s very late and limited permission for international scientists to enter Wuhan and its lack of transparency so far stands out as the main problem. The almost unequivocal rejection of the laboratory source theory by American scientists also seems problematic. Considering that there was great uncertainty at the beginning of the pandemic, it is understandable that there was a lot of confusion, especially for that period. However, the difficulty in providing reliable and satisfying explanations to the public about the origin of the virus until today causes both conspiracy theories to increase and the credibility of institutions to erode. This shows that the work of the international community will be even more difficult in similar crises to be experienced in the coming years.
President Trump’s anti-Chinese rhetoric and his politicization of the fight against the virus due to 2020 being an election year created an important handicap for both the U.S. and the world. Global solidarity could not be achieved when the reflex of bringing the international community together regarding the source and spread of the virus could not be shown. Each country tried to deal with a global problem within its own national borders. However, if the world’s leading scientists could examine the source and spread of the virus without getting in the way, the world public would have much more impartial and healthy information. Trumpist politics had caused millions of Americans to resist wearing masks and vaccination, aggravating the damage of the pandemic. Biden’s campaign, which emphasized the scientific fight against the pandemic, therefore cost Trump’s second term presidency.
The most prestigious epidemic control expert in the U.S. who has seen many presidents, Dr. Fauci was the target of the Trumpist wing of the Republican Party, both for his role in refuting the laboratory resource theory and in closing the economy. Republicans, who kept the laboratory issue in Wuhan on the agenda by questioning Fauci for hours during the congressional sessions, tried to justify Trump’s ‘Chinese virus’ rhetoric. Democrats, on the other hand, talked about the fact that these discourses amounted to racism and that they were theories produced without evidence. Claiming that he always approached the laboratory theory with an ‘open mind’ after the latest statements of the Department of Energy and the FBI, Fauci argued that it was possible for the virus to pass from animals to humans by mutation. Fauci was strongly opposed to the possibility of artificial or deliberate manipulation in the laboratory setting.
The discussion of the laboratory origin of the virus, which has come to the fore again these days, reminded us how the political polarization in the U.S. has affected institutions and produced unhealthy results. We see that the inability of institutions to react harmoniously in the face of a major crisis and the fact that scientists, who are expected to show international leadership, are stuck in narrow discussions, have a serious cost to the world. America’s geopolitical struggle with China has many dimensions, such as economic competition, the race for superiority in advanced technologies, cybersecurity and espionage, the Taiwan issue, and the isolation of Russia. In addition, the adoption of the laboratory leak theory reinforces the thesis that China is an irresponsible power on a global issue.
In this picture, countries like Russia and China stand out as bad actors that have destabilized the American-led “rules-based international system”. It would be unfortunate that the debate on the origin of the virus, which should serve to create opportunities for international cooperation in global crises, is used only to pressure China. On the other hand, it is essential for China to act more responsibly in future crises by acting in a transparent manner, no matter how late it is in this regard. Otherwise, the distortions and deficiencies of the international system in global crises will continue to produce huge costs.