China, America, COVID-19 and the Mindless Conspiracy Theories, By Simbo Olorunfemi
…there little or nothing in form of evidence in support of the claim that COVID-19 was genetically engineered in the laboratory. Dr. Trevor Bedford, a leading expert in the field, dismissed the claim of genetic engineering, telling Financial Times that the mutations in the virus “are completely consistent with natural revolution.”
Since the outbreak of COVID-19, a raft of conspiracy theories has been floating around. That is not unexpected. One, it is a pastime for some. Two, China is largely misunderstood by even the ‘informed’, not to talk of Western conspiracists with a worldview constrained by provincialism. But I seriously did not think that these wild conjectures would make it into the mainstream of public discourse, especially in our part of the world, with all sorts of elaborate, albeit misleading, narratives being woven around these theories. It is strange.
However, in putting what is playing out in the proper context, the first thing to recognise is that this pandemic, as overwhelming as it is, was not unforeseen as many assume. A September 2019 Report by the Global Preparedness Monitoring Board (GPMB) co-convened by the World Bank and the World Health Organisation (WHO) had warned about the growing possibility of a global pandemic, while highlighting the lack of preparedness by the world for it.
It says, “The chances of a global pandemic are growing. While scientific and technological developments provide new tools that advance public health (including safely assessing medical countermeasures), they also allow for disease-causing microorganisms to be engineered or recreated in laboratories. A deliberate release would complicate outbreak response; in addition to the need to decide how to counter the pathogen, security measures would come into play limiting information-sharing and fomenting social divisions. Taken together, naturally occurring, accidental, or deliberate events caused by high-impact respiratory pathogens pose “global catastrophic biological risks.”
The report was categorical in its position that “the world is not prepared for a fast-moving, virulent respiratory pathogen pandemic. The 1918 global influenza pandemic sickened one third of the world population and killed as many as 50 million people – 2.8% of the total population. If a similar contagion occurred today with a population four times larger and travel times anywhere in the world less than 36 hours, 50 – 80 million people could perish. In addition to tragic levels of mortality, such a pandemic could cause panic, destabilize national security and seriously impact the global economy and trade.”
A lot of the accusations being peddled centre around a supposed secrecy by the Chinese and a mismanagement of the outbreak, especially at the initial stage. But these allegations fuelled by the Western media do not find space in the report of the WHO-China Joint Mission on Coronavirus disease, consisting of 25 national and international experts from Nigeria, China, Germany…
There is little doubt that what has played out mirrors what is in the report. So, if a report presented by the GPMB, of which Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director, National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, United States of America, is one of the three Americans on the 15-man Board, what excuse has the United States of America for his lack of preparedness, no matter what might have been the source of the pathogen? How is it that with such advanced notification, America would be where it is now, looking at the loss of 100,000 to 240,000 lives in a best-case scenario and the death of one million Americans in a worst-case scenario? What has that got to do with China?
A lot of the accusations being peddled centre around a supposed secrecy by the Chinese and a mismanagement of the outbreak, especially at the initial stage. But these allegations fuelled by the Western media do not find space in the report of the WHO-China Joint Mission on Coronavirus disease, consisting of 25 national and international experts from Nigeria, China, Germany, Japan, Korea, Russia, Singapore, the United States of America and the World Health Organisation (WHO), which was in China for nine days in February to “inform nation and international planning on next steps in the response to the ongoing outbreak of the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-191) and on next steps in readiness and preparedness for geographic areas not yet affected.” It did not allege secrecy or lack of cooperation on the part of the Chinese. Rather, the effort by the Chinese was applauded, just as the director-general of the World Health Organisation has cited China as deserving of gratitude and respect.
A review of the timeline of the outbreak leaves one wondering about the basis of much of the allegations against China. What started as a cluster of pneumonia cases of unknown cause towards the middle of December was declared a public health emergency by the end of the month, with the world Health Organisation having been notified. A novel coronavirus was isolated by the China Centre for Disease Control (CDC) on January 7 and with the pathogen identified, full genome sequences of the new virus were immediately shared with the WHO and the international community. The first case of COVID-19 was detected on January 13 and a set of nucleic acid primers and probes for PCR detection for COVID-19 were released on January 21, which makes much of what is being passed around as deliberate secrecy on the part of China difficult to understand.
Indeed, some of the theories which blame China situate their arguments on the origin and the mode of transmission of the virus. While COVID-19 has been established as a zoonotic virus, with phylogenetics analyses undertaken alongside available full genome sequences suggesting bats as the reservoir of the COVID-19 virus, yet reports have it that the intermediate host(s) has not yet been identified. While the focus of the world through the lens of the media has been on the Seafood Market in Wuhan, however, according to reports, “there is no evidence so far that the origin of SARS-CoV-2 was from the seafood market.” But also is there little or nothing in form of evidence in support of the claim that COVID-19 was genetically engineered in the laboratory. Dr. Trevor Bedford, a leading expert in the field, dismissed the claim of genetic engineering, telling Financial Times that the mutations in the virus “are completely consistent with natural revolution.” The argument that the China stands to economically benefit from the outbreak is rather tenuous. It flies in the face of logic.
The warning was there, alarm bells rang and the opportunity to make a quick readjustment in terms of preparedness and strategy offered itself with availability of the strategy and template deployed in China, which could be appropriated tinkered with for local adaptation. That did not appear to have appealed as a course of action to take for those who are apparently now in much need of it.
If anything, what should be of interest is the level of planning and preparedness by other parts of the world, following the outbreak in China. If the 2019 Global Preparedness Monitoring Board (GPMB) Report was not enough warning, that by the WHO-China Joint Mission on COVID-19 should have been taken seriously. But developments in many parts of the world, subsequent to the outbreak in China and what she did in terms of containment do not suggest that. While the report acknowledges that “in the face of a previously unknown virus, China has rolled out perhaps the most ambitious, agile and aggressive disease containment effort in history” with a treatment plan founded around the principle of “Four Concentrations”, which meant the concentration of patients, medical experts, resources and treatment into special centres, with a “science and risk-based approach” adopted to tailoring implementation of the containment strategy. Some of the ‘advanced countries’ that experienced outbreaks thereafter came across as largely unprepared, failing to take on-board lessons from China, given that there has been a significant “increase in knowledge, approaches and even tools” through the rapid scientific work done in China within the seven weeks since this virus was discovered, but not much heed was paid to this.
The Joint Mission had warned, even as at the end of February, that “much of the global community is not yet ready, in mindset and materially, to implement the measures that have been employed to contain COVID-19 in China (and that)…achieving the high quality of implementation needed to be successful with such measures requires an unusual and unprecedented speed of decision-making by top leaders, operational thoroughness by public health systems, and engagement of society. Given the damage that can be caused by uncontrolled, community-level transmission of this virus, such an approach is warranted to save lives and to gain the weeks and months needed for the testing of therapeutics and vaccine development.”
While warning that COVID-19 is spreading with astonishing speed and that outbreaks in any setting have very serious consequences for others, the mission advised that “there is now strong evidence that non-pharmaceutical interventions can reduce and even interrupt transmission.” But the concern was that global and national preparedness planning is often ambivalent about interventions of this nature. But it was emphatic that “the time that can be gained through the full application of these measures – even if just days or weeks – can be invaluable in ultimately reducing COVID-19 illness and deaths.”
The warning was there, alarm bells rang and the opportunity to make a quick readjustment in terms of preparedness and strategy offered itself with availability of the strategy and template deployed in China, which could be appropriated tinkered with for local adaptation. That did not appear to have appealed as a course of action to take for those who are apparently now in much need of it. The argument on the part of the experts had been for the high and middle-income countries to be rigorous with the recommended ‘non-pharmaceutical measures’ to roll back transmission as that is “vital to achieving a second line of defense to protect low income countries that have weaker health systems and coping capacities”, it is an irony that some of the ‘advanced economies’ have failed in this regard and it is now a case of ensuring that the setback in the countries with stronger health systems do not negatively set aback the progress that has been achieved by many of the low income countries, which simply opted to pay attention to the little things, falling back on their relative hands-on experience and consistency with catering to the base of the healthcare structure, due to the challenge of underdevelopment. These conspiracy theories only remind us of the danger of an infodemic that the world is presently faced with. They do not go far in covering the king who, unfortunately, has left himself uncovered.