A cornered China has mellowed down its ‘wolf-warrior’ approach.

Covid-19 first appeared in Wuhan, China, and has subsequently spread to 220 countries and territories around the world. To date, the virus infected more than 173 million people and took lives of 3.72 million people. Of these, almost 38% fatalities took place in the US, Brazil and India. India alone accounted for almost 10% of all global deaths. People’s lives have been disrupted, economic activities have come to a grinding halt, and trillions of dollars have been lost as economies registered negative growth as high as 7.3% in case of India, millions of jobs have been lost and millions have been pushed below the poverty line. Even after 18 months since its outbreak, the world is clueless about its origin as well as its end. As regards the origin of the virus, the zoonotic and lab accident theories are making the rounds. The former gained currency during the first wave of the virus, however, as the variants became deadlier in subsequent waves killing people of all age groups, the latter has gained traction and US President Joe Biden has directed his intelligence agencies to submit a report within 3 months. Why have events taken such a sharp turn? What are the plausible scenarios emerging out of the Covid-19 origin investigations?

First of all, if the lab-accident hypothesis is true, the credibility of the some of the leading virologists, science journals, and the World Health Organisation (WHO) will take a beating. This will also demonstrate that China’s penetration of the US goes beyond Wall Street and Washington, and perhaps Xi Jinping was right when he told Jo Biden in 2015 that “China will own America” by 2035, albeit in a light hearted mood. Nevertheless, US’ heavy reliance on Chinese supply chains in some sectors including pharmaceuticals has been exposed amidst the pandemic. In the same vein, a quantum jump in China’s farmland purchases, real estate investments, and business stakes of the owners of mainstream US media at minimum vindicate the China buying America view. Now examine this: when Dr Shi Zhengli, the “bat woman” of China published a paper in Nature on 3 February 2020 advocating the zoonotic origin theory of the Wuhan coronavirus spread, she was supported by 27 public health scientists in a statement published by Lancet on 19 February 2020. The scientists said they were in “solidarity with all scientists and health professionals in China who continue to save lives and protect global health during the challenge of the COVID-19 outbreak.” The WHO also took this line and ruled out that the virus originated from lab-accident in its Report issued in February 2021 after their investigations in Wuhan. This line of thinking was projected in the mainstream media globally, especially in the US and any attempt to circulate news related to the lab accident hypothesis was completely blocked, including from social medias like Facebook, so much so the accounts of the “spreaders” of such a “conspiracy theory” were also closed temporarily.

Two, an article by Nicholas Wade, a science writer associated with the Nature, Lancet and New York Times on 5 May 2021 in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists weighs the zoonotic as well as lab-leak hypotheses and inclines towards the latter. The argument is supported vehemently by the British Professor Angus Dalgleish and Norwegian scientist Dr Birger Sørensen, in  a paper accessed by the Daily Mail of the UK. The duo argue that they have had “prima facie evidence of retro-engineering in China for a year.” The scientists also concluded that that the “SARS-Coronavirus-2 has no credible natural ancestor.” Indian researchers in a paper titled “Uncanny similarity of unique inserts in the 2019-nCoV spike protein to HIV-1 gp120 and Gag” had argued that they have “found that the 2019- nCoV spike glycoprotein contains 4 insertions,” but the paper had to be withdrawn. Dr Luc Montagnier, a 2008 Nobel Prize winner for Medicine has supported this argument by pointing to “molecular tinkering” with the spike proteins and that the virus is “manipulated and accidentally released from a laboratory in Wuhan.”

This has created a storm in China and the rest of the world. China published a series of editorials blaming the US of “politicisation” of the virus. As for the US virologists, who hereunto were adhering to the zoonotic hypotheses, now argued that there could be a possibility of lab-leak, therefore further investigations were required. Even the Biden administration that issued an executive order banning the use of terms such as “China virus” and “Wuhan virus” when referring to COVID-19 in January 2021, has now ordered an investigation into the origin of the virus. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken vowed to hold China accountable to the origin of the virus in an interview given to the Axion HBO on 7 June 2021.

If this is the case, why did Dr Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, and Dr Peter Daszak, of the EcoHealth Alliance, USA and many other scientists give in to the zoonotic theory so quickly? Why is the US mainstream media doing a volte-face now? If Fox News anchor Tucker Carlson’s story is to be believed, the US has gathered credible information from a “highest-level Chinese defector” to the US, who is believed to be cooperating with the National Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA). If this is a credible piece of information, the Biden Administration has been forced to take a tougher stand, who hitherto appeared to be giving a respectful burial to the virus origin. This was in contrast to the Trump administration’s investigations and calling the virus a “China virus.” It was perceived that President Biden didn’t want to rock the troubled boat of the US-China relationship beyond castigating China’s assertiveness in the Taiwan Strait and human rights issues in Xinjiang, Tibet and Hong Kong. Remember his son, Hunter Biden still holds 10% stakes in a Chinese equity firm named Bohai Harvest RST Equity Investment Fund Management Co. Notwithstanding Biden’s intentions, things don’t look good given the geopolitical rivalry between the established hegemon and the challenger.

Three, the investigations will also implicate the US, for it points finger towards US virologists and state organs that funded dangerous “gain of function” research in China’s Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV), which is banned in the US. Top US virologists like Dr Ralph Baric have been collaborating with Dr Shi Zhengli for many years. In late May, in a Senate hearing, Dr Fauci told lawmakers that the US granted $600,000 in funding to the WIV for coronavirus research through Peter Daszak’s non-profit EcoHealth Alliance. The Daily Mail also reveals that between 2013 and 2019, the Pentagon gave $39 million to EcoHealth Alliance. Dr Fauci’s emails from last year reveal that he didn’t entertain the idea that the novel coronavirus could’ve leaked from a lab, contrary to the views of a fellow scientist Kristian Andersen, a virologist at the Scripps Research Institute in California who did point out that “some of the features (potentially) look engineered.” Furthermore, emails also establish Dr Fauci’s cordial relations with Chinese government officials such as George Gao Fu, director of the Chinese Centre of Disease Control and Prevention. Given this nexus between US virologists, government entities and organisations with their counterparts in Wuhan, and also as to why the US was encouraging and conducting hazardous “gain of function” research when the same is banned in the US, it could be deduced why US virologists tried to put a lid on the lab-accident theory.

Four, so even if both the zoonotic and lab-leak hypotheses have not been proved right to date, nevertheless, public opinion at this point in time is right in demanding free and fair investigations. However, even if the origin of the virus is established, at maximum voices asking for trillions of dollars in compensation, as Donald Trump has been asking recently, will become louder. But who has paid compensation for the origin of pandemics? In the history of epidemics, no country has ever been blamed and asked to pay indemnities. AIDS originated in the US, did the US compensate people who were infected or killed by it across the globe? H1N1 or the swine flu that originated in Mexico and killed millions worldwide; did countries sue Mexico for compensation? Similar is the case with Ebola and Mers and the list continues. Even if the political slug is dragged to the International Court of Justice, who abides by the ruling nowadays? This may be followed by sanctions, but the same have been imposed on Russia for other reasons obviously. These may have hurt Russia economically to some extent, but did they diminish Russia’s role or influence? What the likely scenario is therefore, is that it may hasten China’s economic decoupling from the West, which in certain hi-tech sectors is already happening. It will also intensify the cold war between the US and China and turn the Indo-Pacific more volatile and fraught with dangers of armed conflict.

Finally, lab-accidents do happen, however, whether they are part of other conspiracy theories, including the one that COVID-19 is an outcome of “China’s biological weapons program” which so far has not gained credence, needs to be investigated. Nevertheless, the US and its allies cornering China on the virus origin and human rights, has mellowed down the “wolf-warrior” approach of China, and in a speech on 31 May 2021, President Xi Jinping has called on the Communist Party leaders to project a “trustworthy,loveable and admirable” image of China. The unfolding of events in the US recently establishes the fact that conflicts of interest are certainly at the centre of all narratives. It is owing to these conflicts of interests that a certain narrative is created and sold. So much so that social media and some reputed science journals have blocked information or forced scholars to withdraw their findings that are antithetical to the mainstream narrative.

B.R. Deepak is Professor, Center of Chinese and Southeast Asian Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.