Investigation of US labs necessary in pursuit of Covid origins

File picture: Denis Balibouse/Keystone via AP

File picture: Denis Balibouse/Keystone via AP

Published Sep 3, 2021


OPINION: While the US continues to create a narrative around China, it hides the fact that it is the largest funder and implementer of coronavirus research worldwide, writes Shannon Ebrahim.

It is a great irony that while the US blames China for the coronavirus and tries to play up the Wuhan laboratory leak theory, it has refused to allow investigations into its own US biowarfare activities which potentially pose a danger to the world.

The WHO released a joint WHO-China study conducted by 34 experts on the origins of Covid-19, which found that a leak from the Wuhan laboratory was highly unlikely. Not only was the laboratory a joint China-France government project which followed international standards, it had never studied the virus, and no staff member had ever contracted it. The US was part of the WHO-China study group, but continues to cast aspersions on the authenticity of the report. But more than 80 countries have supported the joint WHO-China study.

The US has continued to make a case about China’s culpability, with President Joe Biden tasking his intelligence agencies to conduct their own study into the origins of Covid-19, which played up the laboratory leak theory. But the US report, which was released on August 27, has been widely criticised for having politicised the issue, and being anti-science.

All this seems to obfuscate what US institutions have been doing in terms of coronavirus research, and in a complete lack of transparency, the US government has closed the US off to origin tracing. China has submitted two non-papers to the WHO on its concerns regarding Fort Detrick in the US – the home base of US biowarfare activities. The US Army Medical Research Institute on Infectious Diseases is the most prominent entity on the base and has been engaged in coronavirus research and modification. What is not widely publicised is that the laboratory suffered a serious safety incident and was shut down in 2019. Shortly thereafter there were outbreaks of disease with symptoms similar to Covid-19 within the US. A petition was sent to the White House in March last year demanding that the US government disclose information about the base, but there was no response.

While the US continues to create a narrative around China, it hides the fact that it is the largest funder and implementer of coronavirus research worldwide. From January 2015 until June last year, the University of North Carolina reported 28 safety incidents involving genetically engineered micro-organisms to the National Institute of Health. Six of those cases included coronaviruses. Many had been genetically modified and a total of eight researchers may have been infected. An investigation into this laboratory would help to clarify whether such research produced or leaked the Covid-19 virus.

The US has over 200 bio labs outside the US, but the international community knows nothing about whether the activities in those laboratories are consistent with the Biological Weapons Convention. A security incident at any one of them could have catastrophic consequences for the world. The US is quick to call for investigations into other countries’ laboratories, but is the only country that opposes building a multilateral biological verification mechanism.

China has made a request for the WHO to investigate Fort Detrick and the University of North Carolina in terms of Covid origin tracing, but this has so far been denied. Given the many questions that still exist around the origins of Covid-19, such investigations are imperative in order to make proper and accurate findings.

Scientists now believe that the Covid-19 virus originated in many places around the world. Before the virus was even reported in China, genetic material of the virus was found in waste water in a Brazilian city. It was also found in the skin biopsies of a woman in Italy. Between December 13, 2019 and January 17th last year, nine states in the US reported 106 archived samples of blood donations that tested positive for Covid-19 antibodies. This suggests that the virus may have already been circulating before it was reported in Wuhan. Given the number of deaths and grave illness caused by this virus globally, every country has an obligation to open their borders and bio labs to full investigation.

The US had a notably weak coronavirus response, particularly under the Trump administration, which led to the rapid spread of the illness within its borders.The US has had the highest number of cases in the world, with over 38 million Covid-19 cases, and over 630 000 lives have been lost. The US total is 18% of the global cases, while the country has only 4% of the world’s population. Given the failure of US leadership to effectively and timeously deal with the spread of the pandemic, it is clear why they would want to deflect blame elsewhere. But questions also need to be answered as to whether the origins of Covid-19 may lead back to US labs which had already been working on the virus.

* Ebrahim is Group Foreign Editor