2020-06-29 10:35:00  2298169
Whither the probe on the origin of coronavirus

By Tan Sri Ong Tee Keat

The face-off between the US and China over the origin of coronavirus turns out to be the proverbial last straw by edging the world to the abyss of a New Cold War.

When the world still remains in the shadow of Covid19 outbreak, the scientists' efforts in getting to the bottom of the pandemic origin and cause seemed to have been drowned in the seas of political posturing featured by unsubstantiated scapegoating and truth-defying conspiracy theories.

The Trump Administration remains steadfast in attributing the global spread of the contagion to China, with specific stigmatization of Wuhan, where the purported patient zero was first diagnosed with the then unknown pulmonary symptoms. The Wuhan biological P4 lab was catapulted to the international limelight by the conspiracy theory claiming that the deadly virus could have been synthesized or genetically modified in the lab.

Be that as it may, in so far as the scientists' findings are concerned, this hypothesis has since been ruled out by the international scientific consensus. Presumably this exclusion also includes a similar conspiracy theory cast on the abrupt closure of Fort Detrick Bio-weaponry lab in Maryland, which has hitherto remained inexplicable.

Nonetheless, this has in no way thwarted Washington in its bid to demand an investigation into the Wuhan Bio-lab, albeit without substantiated evidence which President Trump once claimed to have sighted. This was echoed by Australia's plea for an independent probe into the same lab. The chorusing of this demand for investigation, laced with prejudged culpability, has immediately met with a strong push-back by China, thus putting the latter at odds with the international community.

This is a global perception game at work, putting the soft power of China to an unprecedented severe test. While all eyes were glued to the World Health Assembly ( WHA ) with anticipation that China would be under siege, much to the global surprise, President Xi unambiguously embraced the necessity of conducting a comprehensive international probe of the virus origin when the contagion recedes, hoping to better prepare the world against any potential outbreak in future.

While Washington sought to ramp up the China-bashing in establishing Beijing's culpability of the outbreak spread, more new scientific findings came to light, exposing that there were cases of dubious respiratory illness prior to the outbreak in Wuhan outside China.

On March 11th, 2020 ,Robert Redfield, the director of US Center for Disease Control & Prevention ( CDC ), while testifying to the Congress, admitted that numerous fatalities of respiratory illness with pulmonary fibrosis symptoms had been miscategorized as flu. These symptoms, akin to that of Covid19, had apparently flown below the American regulatory radar and were only found posthumously.

Though he stopped short of revealing the timeline and localities of such deaths, in retrospect, one of the outbreaks at Greenspring Retirement Community, Virginia -- with 63 cases of infections out of a total of 263 residents -- reported by the American media on July 13th, 2019 seems to befit the description then, albeit it was not reported to the WHO. Neither did the CDC alert the American public on the real cause of the outbreak.

Certainly, dubious cases of such nature warrants in-depth investigation by the WHO-led team if an independent international probe were to be conducted to trace the origin and cause of the pandemic.

If at all the Wuhan laboratory has to be scrutinized for fear that the

outbreak might have begun through contact with infected animals or simply due to a probable accidental leak , as was suggested by the Director of National Intelligence ( DNI ) of the US , the same is equally applicable to the Fort Detrick Army Biodefense laboratory in Maryland, which was closed in August 2019 purportedly due to biosafety considerations after a number of pneumonia cases or pneumonia-like illness were diagnosed in its vicinity. Put it plainly: Why must the proposed investigation focus only on Wuhan -- the epicenter of the initial outbreak -- when more new clues linked to the virus origin were progressively resurrected across the world?

While intensifying the virulent attacks on China for allegedly unleashing the coronavirus worldwide, both President Trump and his Secretary of State Mike Pompeo failed to stop the scientists worldwide from getting closer to the deciphering of the virus origin.

It was reported that the coronavirus outbreak in France was not caused by cases imported from China, but from a locally circulating strain of unknown origin, according to a new study by French scientists at the Institut Pasteur in Paris. Genetic analysis showed that the dominant types of the viral strains in France belonged to a clade -- or group with a common ancestor -- that did not come from China or Italy, the earliest hotspot in Europe.

Parallel to this, what might baffle the American politicians -- who have been viewing the pandemic issue through the lens of their obsessed antipathy to Beijing -- was that the early outbreak in the US apparently owed its origin not from China. A team of geneticists from Oxford University had reportedly found that the dominant strains circulating in China and Asia were genetically younger than some popular strains in the United States.

Compounded by the timeline of July and August 2019 outbreaks in Virginia and Maryland which were diagnosed posthumously , this has further obfuscated the virus origin and its trail of spread.

This is no conspiracy theory promoted by either Beijing or its propaganda machine. Neither was it billed the disinformation disseminated by the War Wolf diplomats, but the data-based scientific findings that have long been obscured by the trading of blames between the two great powers.

The initial tardy response by the local officials in Wuhan, either out of political wariness or due to lack of sufficient grasp of the unknown virus strain, might have flawed the efforts of Beijing in fighting the virus all alone when the respiratory illness was first detected. How much it has 

delayed the timeline of international responsiveness remains to be established. But this was swiftly remedied by the decisive lockdown of Wuhan and later the entire Hubei province by Beijing. By heaping the blames against China in attempts designed to isolate it and to stymie its rise in geopolitical influence might suit the bipartisan consensual agenda on the Capitol Hill, but certainly not a viable option in arresting the rapid spike of pandemic and the floundering economy from coast to coast in the US. The escalating China-bashing, if not demonizing, might succeed in cultivating a pervasive negative perception of its strategic-partner-turned-rival, however it virtually contributed nothing to enable us in getting closer to the truth of the deadly contagion.

As the world is getting globalized with our interests intertwined, multilateral collaboration in pursuit of our shared destiny is now nothing, but hard facts of reality. This is all the more relevant in the wake of mounting existential cataclysms.

In this perspective, the international community, big and small nations alike, has every right to an impartial, independent investigation of the coronavirus origin and its cause when the pandemic recedes. But any probe motivated by prejudged prejudice would only dent the credibility of such a multilateral endeavor in addressing the public health crisis, and consequentially reducing it to a meaningless tool serving the very interest of specific nations in their bid to devastate the targeted country in the global geopolitical contest.

(Tan Sri Ong Tee Keat is Chairman of Center for New Inclusive Asia, CNIA.)

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