On 25 May 2021, the United States Senate voted to adopt two amendments which point to the responsibility of the Covid-19 pandemic back at China and the Wuhan Institute of Virology. Passed within the Endless Frontiers Act, Amendment 1507 prohibits the nation from funding the Wuhan lab, while Amendment 2003 bans any gain of function research funding for China.
These recent reversals in funding come as investigations into the origins of Covid-19 have failed to show that the virus’ presumed natural jump from bats to humans was the definite cause of the pandemic. Consequently, consideration has now turned back to questioning whether the pandemic was caused by human ineptitude — an idea once branded as conspiracy. The virology lab in Wuhan, which is known to have studied Coronaviruses, according to a United States intelligence report had sick researchers go to the city’s hospital in the autumn before the pandemic proliferated, importantly with symptoms resembling Covid-19, according to The Wall Street Journal. This lab-leak theory, which has no smoking gun (as of now), has troubled several U.S. government representatives to pass these bans and probe further into the issue once trashed as a deflection or racist strategy by the previous Trump administration.
Senator Rand Paul, one of the amendment’s sponsors and critic of Dr Fauci’s advice during the pandemic, recently questioned the chief scientists’ support for gain of function research. According to Paul, who incidentally is an eye doctor, it was necessary to pass these amendments as the previous restrictions on this kind of research ended in 2017. Importantly, funding and collaboration with the Wuhan Virology Institute had avoided being accountable from that period. Dr Fauci has since claimed that his National Institutes of Health never supported gain of function research, despite the prior links and cooperation with the Wuhan Virology Institute in the past. Dr Fauci since then has come under criticism for leaked emails that showed his uncertainty about the origins of the disease early on in 2020, despite publicly not expressing these concerns.
While there is a political angle within this story regarding the responses to the origins of the pandemic, it is important despite any point scoring, or disagreements, that transparency and the truth comes out in the end. If further investigations point to the conclusion that the pandemic was caused by an accidental lab leak (given the damage to China it seems implausible that it would have occurred on purpose), then it would be far better that the Wuhan Virology Institute and those concerned with it take responsibility and to ensure that this did not happen again. So, despite the purported usefulness of gain of function research in experimenting in how diseases may change over time, and then in how to combat them, the costs to the world in lives and resources for this pandemic make it ethically unfeasible that this practice should ever continue. This is if it is shown to be an accident because we still do not know the true origins of the pandemic. Therefore, it is important to put pressure on China to be transparent and do the right thing, even if it is ‘shameful,’ as the consequences for lying or hiding information will almost certainly make the world’s current state worse than it already is right now.
Even though cutting ties makes a showdown between the United States and China (with others included) more likely, it is difficult to argue this move by the U.S. Senate was wrong given the uncertainty and incomplete information China has provided from the start of this disaster.
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