Amid recent concerns about a possible lab origin as being the initial contact with the COVID-19 virus, World Health Organization (WHO) official Mike Ryan reported that the international agency does not hold the power to compel the Chinese government to reveal more data on the outbreak in Wuhan. China’s lack of transparency over the origin of COVID-19 and the WHO’s failure to probe deeper into the issue have cast doubts over whether the organization will be able to secure the truth about the initial outbreak.
The COVID-19 pandemic has been a devastating crisis causing death, sickness and economic recession across the globe. Understanding the origins of this virus is critical to preventing future pandemics, which is why transparency and cooperation between nations is needed in efforts to research the initial outbreak. International institutions like the WHO are important to managing an interconnected world, as viral outbreaks do not recognize borders. However, when politics, reputation, and casting blame are involved, it impedes necessary and objective scientific investigation.
Mike Ryan, who is Director of the WHO Emergency Program, expressed that the organization expects “cooperation, input and support of all of our member states.” The Chinese government has not been forthcoming with all the results from its own extensive investigations and has limited the access to research in Wuhan from international scientists. Some have accused the WHO of being unduly influenced by China, as an extremely influential geopolitical power that contributes significantly to the WHO’s funding, although the United States is still the prime contributor. A possible outcome of an investigation into the origins of COVID-19 could be a revelation of avoidable mistakes that could diminish China’s reputation in the world arena. The prevailing scientific theory has been that animal-to-human contact initiated this coronavirus, particularly from bats or wild animals sold in the Huanan Seafood Market. However, the theory that COVID-19 emerged from an accidental leak from a Wuhan laboratory that studies bat-borne viruses has gained traction among some scientists and politicians. On May 26th, U.S. President Joe Biden issued a statement indicating that the U.S. Intelligence Community understands this theory to be an equally likely explanation for the initial COVID-19 outbreak. Biden prompted Intelligence Community investigators to double efforts to collect information and to report back within 90 days.
Regardless of which theory is correct, the prevention of future outbreaks will require stringent regulation of human contact with wild animals and viruses through proper laboratory procedures and crackdowns on wildlife trade. However, stopping initial infection is only one aspect of viral prevention; human-to-human spread was the primary cause of COVID-19’s proliferation. This is an area in which not only China is responsible for the disastrous outcomes; inadequate responses abroad also allowed the virus to spread to a global scale. While understanding how COVID-19 came into contact with humans in the first place is important, it should not be the only priority. Such a focus can divert attention away from inadequate global health security measures and the failures of various governments to prevent spread and provide care.
The origin of COVID-19 is an extremely tense subject in global politics. As Mike Ryan asserted, the WHO cannot force the Chinese government to release its data or give access to international scientists, and pushing too far could cause China to clamp down even further. If it wants to prevent another virus, China is obligated to cooperate and be transparent regardless of whether doing so reveals embarrassing mistakes. The rest of the world and the WHO must proceed carefully, not with the intent to cast blame for unalterable past events, but rather to progress toward a future that is safer against deadly viral pandemics.
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