Does it matter where the virus that causes COVID-19 came from? In terms of frontline medicine, perhaps not — patients still need to be treated and the public health crisis managed.
But when it comes to geopolitics, it matters greatly, particularly to the United States and China. So, a new investigation into the origins of the virus must be seen in the context of a long-running blame game between the US and China.
Biden’s latest move
Last week, President Joe Biden announced he had ordered a further US intelligence investigation into the origins of COVID-19, asking for a report back in 90 days.
He revealed the US intelligence community is split between two likely scenarios — human contact with animals or a lab accident — and could not assess whether one was “more likely than the other”.
This is a significant shift from early scepticism about theories involving the Wuhan Institute for Virology. Last year, The Lancet published a statement from health scientists, who said:
We stand together to strongly condemn conspiracy theories suggesting that COVID-19 does not have a natural origin.
Why is the US stirring up the investigation now?
The lab accident theory has moved from the fringe to become much more mainstream in the US, most recently with a Wall Street Journal article last month, reporting illness among Wuhan lab workers shortly before the first cases of COVID-19.
With the Biden administration doing an excellent job bringing the COVID crisis under control in America, the fact he is still focusing on the origin of the virus is a reminder of the domestic politics around the issue. Donald Trump promised a conclusive report and Biden can’t afford to be seen as any less tough.
‘Victims’ versus ‘saviours’
When it comes to the pandemic disaster, the US wants history books to show it as the victim of external forces, rather than its own mismanagement.
This was particularly the case during the Trump administration. In the face of the unfolding health crisis, it emphasised the origin of the virus, with Trump and officials referring to the “Chinese Virus” and even “Kung Flu”.
The US rightly criticised early Chinese mishandling, with former secretary of state Mike Pompeo vocal about China’s suppression of early warnings and lack of transparency. The consistent message was the pandemic was “made in China”.
From the Chinese side, it wants to be remembered as the regime that showed the world how to overcome the virus, not the one that unleashed it. China has already tried to muddy the waters around the origin of the virus, even suggesting
it might be [the] US army who brought the epidemic to Wuhan.
It has emphasised its success in battling COVID-19 with enviably low case numbers.
Domestically, this is used to show the superiority of China’s political and governance system. Internationally, China is trying to position itself as a responsible, humanitarian global power, a country that helps others with medical supplies through its “mask diplomacy”.
What do international investigations say so far?
In 2020, the 194 member states of the World Health Assembly tried to get an independent and comprehensive evaluation of the international health response to COVID-19. This was through an Independent Panel for Pandemic Preparedness and Response, headed by former New Zealand prime minister Helen Clark and former Liberian president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.
In its May report, the panel was critical of China’s early handling and the World Health Organization’s delay in declaring an emergency. But it did not make a finding on the origins of the virus, saying the exact transmission cycle remains unknown.
The mission found the lab scenario was “extremely unlikely”. But it was criticised when it came to the data made available. The US said the report provided a “partial and incomplete” picture. Despite China’s hopes, the report did not resolve questions about where the virus began.
Washington DC called on the WHO to open a second phase to its investigation, which China rejected. With this avenue blocked, the Biden administration has said it will publish the results of its own inquiry.
What does this mean for Australia?
In the immediate term, there are no obvious ramifications for Australia. The shape of US-China relations under Biden is clear: competitive when it should be, collaborative when it can and adversarial when it must.
The latest inquiry may bring up memories of Australia’s push for an international inquiry last year, which China saw as “dancing to the tune” of the US. If Australia is seen to get behind the lab leak theory, this will likely be framed by China as “Canberra trying to please Washington”.
So far, foreign minister Marise Payne has simply welcomed Biden’s announcement while prime minister Scott Morrison has placed it within the context of the independent panel’s work. We will see if defence minister Peter Dutton is more fiery, having previously talked up the lab theory after contracting the virus (ironically during a visit to the White House).
While some might say we should wait until the crisis is over to assign fault, this is never going to happen when the US and China are concerned. The battle to control the COVID-19 narrative started the same day as the battle against the virus itself.