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Opinion The world will demand answers on covid-19 until China explains what happened

Chinese commuters wear protective masks as they cross an intersection during rush hour on Thursday in Beijing.
Chinese commuters wear protective masks as they cross an intersection during rush hour on Thursday in Beijing. (Kevin Frayer/Getty Images)
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There’s a booming market in conspiracy theories about the origins of the novel coronavirus in Wuhan, China. But the Chinese government has no one to blame but itself for this explosive debate. They have put the truth on lockdown.

China has an obligation here: For its own sake, and the world’s, it should promptly begin a serious, credible investigation into how the covid-19 pandemic began. Such an inquiry is essential to understand how to treat the disease and prevent future eruptions. To make this probe trustworthy, China should invite international scientists to take part.

Top scientists I contacted over the past week were skeptical about theories that are spinning about deliberate Chinese attempts to engineer the toxic virus. But many said it’s possible that a pathogen that was being studied by researchers in Wuhan could have leaked accidentally from one of two virology labs there, setting off the chain of infection.

Many of these top scientists said they would remain “agnostic” about how covid-19 emerged until the Chinese provided clear evidence. Their calls for an investigation add weight to similar demands this week by political leaders, such as President Trump and Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison.

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“It is extraordinarily important to understand exactly how this pandemic began,” said Tom Inglesby, the director of the Center for Health Security at Johns Hopkins. He told me that Chinese public health officials should describe their scientific and epidemiological investigations and “inviteinternational scientists to review that work. That process should be open to the world.”

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Tara O’Toole, a biosafety expert who was the Obama administration’s undersecretary of homeland security for science and technology, made a similar recommendation in an interview: “The world needs scientists to do research on these viruses, and we need to be sure that research is done in containment as safely as possible. . . . The appropriate move would be to assemble an international team of experts to review safety and security practices at labs and to make the findings public.”

A panel of prominent U.S. scientists gathered by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine described what an investigation should involve in a Feb. 6 letter to the White House. They urged the Chinese to gather viral samples from different times and places “to determine the origin and evolution of the virus.” The letter stressed: “Samples collected as early as possible in the outbreak in Wuhan and samples from wildlife would be particularly valuable.”

Chinese researchers did some careful research in January and February, when the virus was spreading. But research was subsequently tightly controlled, and in at least one case with scientists in Guangzhou, suppressed. A senior military doctor was put in charge of the Wuhan Institute of Virology in late January, and President Xi Jinping announced a new biosafety regime Feb. 14. In late March, the Chinese government announced special vetting for any academic papers dealing with the outbreak, according to CNN.

The recent commotion about conspiracy theories comes partly from an unpublished paper by several maverick European scientists that was privately circulating last week. The authors argued that covid-19 was a “purposefully manipulated” virus created partly through “gain of function” research at the Wuhan Institute of Virology. A 2015 paper by Chinese and American scientists had described such an effort to enhance the potential infectivity of bat coronaviruses so they could be studied and treated better.

But both U.S. and British intelligence analysts are skeptical that covid-19 resulted from deliberate human engineering. The claims about “engineered origins” in the paper were “not substantiated” by British government scientists, a British official told me. U.S. intelligence analysts are also confident that the virus wasn’t created in a laboratory, but they haven’t ruled out the possibility that a natural organic virus that was enhanced for scientific reasons may have leaked accidentally in Wuhan.

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“Science is not going to shift this from a ‘could have been’ to a ‘probably was,’ ” messaged Richard H. Ebright, a leading biosafety expert at Rutgers. “The question whether the outbreak virus entered humans through an accidental infection of a lab worker . . . can be answered only through a forensic investigation, not through scientific speculation.” Ebright told me the Chinese government should launch a forensic investigation by reviewing “facilities, samples, records, and personnel.”

The pandemic that began in Wuhan last year was a history-changing event, with catastrophic effects. The world should keep demanding answers until China explains clearly and transparently what happened. Beijing should realize that this is a situation where suppression of information will only make things worse.

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