A requirement for masks is seen inside the Pennsylvania Railway Station, New York City, the U.S., on August 11 (XINHUA)
During talks about the origin tracing of COVID-19, Mike Ryan, Executive Director of the World Health Organization's (WHO) Health Emergencies Program, cited the study on the origins of the Ebola outbreak. "It took us years and years to even begin to understand the origin of Ebola," he said on February 9, 2020, after an international expert team wrapped up its investigation in Wuhan, where the first COVID-19 cases in China were reported. Even to this day, many unknowns on how the Ebola outbreak started persisted, he added.
Like Ebola, it is difficult to trace the origins of many such infectious diseases. AIDS were first recognized in 1981, but 40 years have passed since then and humanity still doesn't know exactly where it hailed from. Severe acute respiratory syndrome wreaked havoc in 2003, and people still haven't figured out how it started, in spite of the many research efforts made.
"The point at which you see the flame is never usually the point where the fire starts," Ryan said. "Your first job is to put out the flames and get the epidemic under control."
As the world is in the throes of the novel coronavirus and its variants, experts believe that collaboration in the fight against the pandemic is more urgent and crucial than continuing the politically driven origin tracing.
"The suspicion that SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes COVID-19) might have a laboratory origin stems from the coincidence that it was first detected in a city that houses a major virological laboratory that studies coronaviruses," wrote a recently published paper entitled The Origins of SARS-CoV-2: A Critical Review.
"The most parsimonious explanation for the origin of SARS-CoV-2 is a zoonotic event. There is currently no evidence that SARS-CoV-2 has a laboratory origin," the paper, written by 21 renowned virologists and evolutionary biologists, further read.
Since the start of the pandemic, most scientists have insisted that the virus originated in nature itself.
"When you are dealing with a new virus, such as this one, you can expect the appearance of many conspiracy theories in the media and social networks. But I can say that all the evidence now available indicates that this virus is of animal origin," WHO spokesperson Fadela Chaib said at a briefing in Geneva on April 21, 2020. She also emphasized that the novel coronavirus was not the result of laboratory-induced manipulation.
According to scientists, if the virus is synthesized inside a lab it will show a series of known elements within its genome sequence; this is not the case with the new coronavirus.
In a recent interview, Anthony Stephen Fauci, Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases of the U.S., said he continues to believe the "most likely" origin for COVID-19 is
nature and he hasn't seen any recent "concrete evidence" to make him think the "Wuhan lab leak" hypothesis is more likely.
Fauci's remarks were echoed by Paul Offit, a member of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's vaccine advisory committee. "I think the chances that this was created by laboratory workers—that it was engineered—are zero," Offit told the media.
Even though there is so much evidence and professional backup about the origin of the virus, allegations about it leaking from a Wuhan laboratory into the wide world, claims originally cooked up by politicians and media outlets during former U.S. President Donald Trump's administration, have continued to flare up in the Joe Biden administration since it took office in January. The U.S. even twisted WHO's arm, demanding the organization initiate a so-called second round of investigation into the origin of the coronavirus in China.
It's very dangerous when politicians try to make a buck out of scientific issues, Kishore Mahbubani, a distinguished fellow with the Asia Research Institute at the National University of Singapore, told Global Times.
"Tracing the source is understandable... Unfortunately, COVID-19 happened at a time when the United States chose to fall into the Thucydides Trap," Ronnie C. Chan, Co-Chair of the Beijing-based Center for China and Globalization (CCG), said during a webinar on August 1. The political overlay is really impeding the overall situation. Once things become politicized, the Chinese will say "wait a minute, you are not interested in science, you're interested in politics," he added.
Netizens on China's Twitter-like Sina Weibo voiced their dissatisfaction about WHO experts conducting research in China not once, but twice—on January 20-21, 2020 and from January 14 to February 10, 2021, and a grand total of zero in the U.S. where the virus was factually circulating in a few states prior to the outbreak in Wuhan, as demonstrated by growing evidence.
"It's not fair to say that China should allow access, and others should not," Mahbubani said. "Therefore, the U.S. should declare that it is willing to allow WHO teams to access any facilities in the country. That way, the U.S. will set an example for others."
Putting out fires
"It is going to be even more difficult to find patient zero in regards to COVID-19... Given we're still in the midst of a raging pandemic. The real effort needs to zoom in on addressing the problem of people still getting sick and dying; we must try and stop that from happening," Susan A. Thornton, former U.S. Acting Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, said during the CCG webinar. "We need to try and figure out what to do in a pandemic because there will be more coming after this one."
As of August 9, over 4.29 million worldwide had died of COVID-19, according to data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, WHO and the European Center for Disease Prevention and Control. The U.S. thus far has the largest number of deaths, exceeding 610,000.
The emergence and spread of the highly transmissible Delta variant—as well as other possible virus strains—have made it more urgent for countries to join forces. "WHO has warned that the COVID-19 virus has been changing since it was first reported, and continues to change. So far, four variants of concern have emerged, and there will be more as long as the virus continues to spread," WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus stressed at a daily briefing on July 30. He once again reminded everyone that the global distribution of vaccines as of now remains unjust.
"If we don't work together, then things will just be prolonged and become more agonizing to recover. I've been waiting to see if something like this pandemic could pull the U.S. and China out of their hostility toward one another and see them come up with something that we could do together. Or at least work in the same direction and stop fighting," Thornton said.
After all, there's nothing that should be less political than a public health issue, she concluded.
(Print Edition Title: LET FACTS SPEAK)
Copyedited by Elsbeth van Paridon
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