Editor’s Note: Jamie Metzl (@jamiemetzl) is a technology futurist, a member of the World Health Organization international advisory committee on human genome editing, and founder and chair of OneShared.World, a global social movement focusing on facilitating global collective-action. He was the lead drafter and co-organizer of four experts’ open letters on pandemic origins and is the author of five books, including “Hacking Darwin: Genetic Engineering and the Future of Humanity.” He previously served on the National Security Council and State Department during the Clinton administration and with the United Nations. The views expressed are his own.
It is shocking that more than 18 months after the initial Covid-19 outbreak, there is still no international process in place to fully investigate the origins of the pandemic – nor is one planned.
Now that the Chinese government has rejected the World Health Organization’s proposal to step up efforts probing this critical issue, the time has come for a new approach for understanding how this terrible tragedy began.
This roadblock has been a long time coming due to Beijing’s ongoing misinformation campaigns and obfuscation efforts regarding the pandemic’s origins.
In the earliest days following the SARS-CoV-2 outbreak, the Chinese government cracked down on information and stymied efforts to sound the alarm on the novel coronavirus. In the following months, China has failed to provide crucial information to the WHO, with the US and 13 other governments voicing their concerns in March that the WHO’s “international expert study on the source of the SARS-CoV-2 virus was significantly delayed and lacked access to complete, original data and samples.”
When Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison proposed a full investigation into the pandemic origins in April 2020, the Chinese government pushed back against the idea and retaliated by restricting imports of Australian coal, beef, and other commodities through tariffs and other bans.
At last year’s World Health Assembly, an annual meeting attended by all the WHO member states, Morrison’s idea was quashed and a new proposal, strongly supported by China, authorized a Chinese-controlled joint study “to identify the zoonotic source of the virus and the route of introduction to the human population, including the possible role of intermediate hosts.”
This subtle wording ensured that the only international effort examining the pandemic origin focused on the hypothesis that the virus jumped from animals to humans in the wild, while disregarding other hypotheses, including the possibility of an accidental lab incident.
Given China’s de facto control of the joint study process mandated by this resolution, it was not surprising that a team of international experts and their Chinese counterparts, many of whom are affiliated with the government, did not thoroughly investigate a lab incident origin during their short study tour to Wuhan.
At a press event on February 9, the team announced that they believed a lab incident hypothesis was “extremely unlikely” and recommended no further studies – even though they had not thoroughly investigated this possibility.
What was more surprising, however, was that WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus immediately rejected this assessment and called for further investigation. “As far as WHO is concerned all hypotheses remain on the table,” he said.
Last week, Tedros showed tremendous courage when he called on the Chinese government to be more transparent in the sharing of raw data. He also asserted that efforts to preclude the possibility of a lab incident had been premature, and called for “audits of relevant laboratories and research institutions operating in the area of the initial human cases identified in December 2019.”
Not surprisingly, these statements put Tedros in Beijing’s crosshairs.
A fiery editorial in the Global Times, a Chinese government mouthpiece, denounced Tedros as succumbing to US pressure and asserted, “Chinese society will not accept Washington’s hegemonic and hooligan practices, nor will it allow an insulting probe based on the presumption of guilt, which is a serious violation of China’s sovereignty.”
Earlier this week, a Global Times report announced 55 countries had submitted letters to the WHO director-general opposing “the politicization of [the] Covid-19 origins study.” On Thursday, the vice minister of the Chinese National Health Commission, Zeng Yixin, said he was “extremely shocked” by the WHO proposal and that Beijing “can’t possibly accept such a plan for investigating the origins.”
Given the critical importance of fully investigating the origin of Covid-19 and preventing future pandemics, China’s rejection of a full investigation poses a threat to the world that cannot be tolerated.
Although a comprehensive investigation with Chinese cooperation and full access to all relevant records, samples, and personnel is the gold standard, we cannot accept China’s obstruction as the final word on the matter. Beijing cannot be given the veto power over an investigation into the worst pandemic in a century.
That’s why we need a new strategy for moving forward, even without China’s cooperation.
Given the leadership and moral courage Tedros has shown by calling for a full examination into the pandemic origins, the United States and its partners around the world must come together in support of the integrity of the WHO and his leadership.
Even though it is all but certain the Chinese government will block any meaningful probe inside the country, the US and its partners must do everything possible to let the WHO process play out, not least to offer Beijing an ongoing chance to do the right thing.
Because China has now made its intentions clear, however, it would be absurd to rely solely on a WHO-organized process. That’s why the US and its partners must immediately begin planning alternative means to carry out the fullest possible investigation into the pandemic origins in a way the Chinese government cannot block.
While US President Joe Biden has tasked the intelligence community with collecting and analyzing information on the origins of Covid-19, the US should work with its allies, and involve the G7, Quad or other coalitions along with a team of international experts. Although not having full access to all of the relevant resources in China would hamper this investigation, a great deal of progress can be made by pooling efforts, accessing materials available outside of China, and creating secure whistleblower provisions empowering Chinese experts to share information.
In addition to this international effort, the United States should immediately establish a bipartisan Covid-19 commission, based loosely on the 9-11 Commission. This high-profile effort would look at the pandemic origins in China as well as our failures to stem the crisis both in the United States and globally.
The commission could recommend steps to address both national and international shortcomings with the goal of bolstering pandemic preparedness.
As we work to understand what went wrong this time, we must take immediate steps to ensure we are never again caught off guard with another emergent disease. The United States should work closely with partners around the world to develop and implement structural reforms at all levels to make future pandemics far less likely.
While proposals from the WHO-convened Independent Panel for Pandemic Preparedness and Response and for an international pandemic treaty are critically important steps in the right direction, strong US government leadership will be required to turn aspirations and ideas like these into realities on the ground across the globe.
As terrible as this crisis has been, it’s easy to imagine future pandemics being far deadlier as we enter our new age of synthetic biology. If we don’t hold China, ourselves, and the world to the highest standards today, we will all be at far greater risk tomorrow.