US President Donald Trump’s account of the origins of the coronavirus has changed the path of China’s account of the circumstances of the emergence of the virus. Amidst the versions of both Washington and Beijing of a supposedly non-disputable scientific incident, controversy, political at times and scientific at others, has raged over whether the virus has developed naturally or was man-made inside a laboratory in China.

In the absence of intelligence or scientific evidence, according to the theory of Trump and his White House team, the virus has, for some reason and perhaps inadvertently, been released from a Chinese laboratory in the city of Wuhan where the disease first appeared in November 2019, and not from an outside market as claimed in Beijing’s account. According to the US account also, although without being confirmed by the security and intelligence community, the laboratory employs researchers who work on studying dangerous viruses and is characterized by professionally inadequate safety standards, which allowed some release of the COVID-19 virus outside the laboratory.

Aiming at Beijing: mounting US and western pressures to condemn China

It seems that the statements by the US president with respect to the virus issue, despite their possible populist nature within the context of deflecting criticism that his administration acted awkwardly in countering the pandemic, have found their way into the US deep state institutions, whether in terms of the announcement by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo that China needs to be transparent in unveiling what happened, or in terms of confirmation by intelligence agencies that they do not possess evidence but are carrying out the relevant investigations.

However, so far, the US administration has not been successful in marketing Trump’s theory at home and transforming it into an established fact. That account did not ease the attacks launched by the Democratic Party and its presidential candidate Joe Biden in accusing Trump personally of underestimating the virus and his administration of delay in taking urgent measures to counter it. The theory of “synthesis” was not endorsed (although not completely ruled out) by the scientific community, nor did it receive the “blessing” of the intelligence community.

US press reported intelligence sources as saying that US agencies have been investigating this file for months, that intelligence on the Wuhan laboratory and the possibility of its being the “origin of the virus” is absolutely inconclusive, that the intelligence community believes that China itself does not know the origin of the virus, and that the US intelligence agencies may not endorse the White House account that the virus has spread in the world after an error in a laboratory experiment in Wuhan.

Congress cannot take serious positions without evidence endorsed by both the scientific and intelligence communities. On the other hand, the assumption receives a timid European reading, whether in its UK version expressed by the UK Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab (who is deputising for Prime Minister Boris Johnson pending his recovery from coronavirus infection) who said that the UK could not return to “business as usual” with China after the ambiguous way of the coronavirus epidemic spread, or in the French version expressed by French President Emmanuel Macron when he repeatedly asserted that many things have happened (in China) “that we don’t know about”.

Pending the emergence of documents and evidence condemning China, Trump the candidate has an interest in targeting the outside enemy who has long inspired Hollywood screenwriters and in vindicating US leadership from the “guilt” of placing the US in a catastrophe that has positioned it at the forefront of countries in terms of the number of deaths. The sensitivity of the situation is manifested through Trump’s denial and repeated claim that China (which hides the facts) tops the list of countries most affected in the world.

Secretary Pompeo leads the front of incremental pressures exercised by Washington and cautiously matched by allied capitals. Pompeo demands that Beijing “grant the world access to inform the world’s scientists about how the matter had happened and how this virus began to spread”. The US and its allies complain that China is hiding information and has not shared with the world any detailed clinical or epidemiological data on COVID-19. Such information would have been helpful to other countries in determining the best way to treat patients and slow down the spread of the disease. Like other capitals, Washington says that hiding information, especially at the start of the disease spread, deprived US scientists and scientists of the rest of the world of an early understanding of the nature of the virus and finding a way to mitigate its harm.

While the US department of State paves the ground for a forthcoming conflict with China over the position vis-à-vis the pandemic and its circumstances, the military establishment has remained cautious and patient in its judgements. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley seemed unconvinced of the theory that the virus was engineered and released from a Wuhan laboratory. Defense Secretary Mark Esper also expressed doubt about the matter, considering that the results reached by the intelligence circles were inconclusive.

A contradicting Chinese account receives acceptance by the science community (so far at least)

Against continuous US accusations, the Chinese government continues to hold to its account which underlines that the virus was not engineered and that it was transmitted, in unclear circumstances as yet, from animals to humans inside a wet market, that happens to be close to the accused laboratory. Through the spokesman of its foreign ministry, China has continued to underline that the World Health Organization (WHO) “has said multiple times that there is no evidence that the coronavirus was created in a laboratory”. While President Trump suspended his country’s funding of the Organization accusing it of bias in favour of Beijing and covering up the information it hides, the science community, at least until the time of preparing this report, had not gone along with Trump’s account or supported or confirmed it.

So far, the studies on the genome of the virus have not found any indications that it was engineered. An analysis published last month in the Nature Medicine journal compared the new coronavirus with six other viruses from the same family known to infect humans. According to the authors of the study, one of the strong indicators that the new coronavirus has developed naturally is the existence of defects in the protein it uses for binding human cells. These are shortcomings that a person attempting to engineer a deadly virus would almost certainly have avoided. The authors of the study, under the leadership of computational biologist Kristian Anderson of the Scripps Research Translational Institute, California, wrote: “Our analyses clearly show that SARS-CoV-2 is not a laboratory construct or a purposefully manipulated virus”. Their research indicates that the coronavirus was transmitted from an animal ‒ perhaps a bat ‒ to humans in late November or early December 2019.

It is hard to exclude the idea that the virus was leaked from the laboratory. However, numerous virologists and infectologists say that the latter scenario is also unlikely. SARS and MERS, which are also coronaviruses that cause severe disease to humans, were transmitted from animals to humans in the last twenty years. While scientists cannot conclusively say that the new coronavirus came from bats, this is not unusual. Animals are also suspected of being the source of Ebola virus which first appeared in 1976, but the matter has not been conclusively proved.

Implications and possible effects

Fears have prevailed of the impact of the current US-Chinese controversy on the path of international cooperation (particularly between both countries) to combat the spread of the epidemic. Yet facts have so far confirmed that the reciprocal campaigns between Washington and Beijing continue to be at the media level and have not evolved into the level of taking actions that would disrupt dealings between both countries, especially that claims by US allies in Europe that the US has re-purchased Chinese medical equipment destined for European customers reveal the extent of US-Chinese collusion based on utility and interests regardless of the political skirmishes between them.

It is noteworthy that the issue of Chinese cooperation with the world to combat the corona epidemic continues, despite blame by some capitals, to be associated with the quantity and quality of information that Beijing continues to withhold. Yet China denies hiding any information and considers that, like other countries of the world, it does not have additional knowledge of the virus. Beijing circles underline that they have resorted to imposing home quarantine to combat the epidemic and shared their approach in combating the disease with other countries. They have also sent advisers to affected countries in Europe, particularly Spain and Italy, and generously dispatched medical equipment (although its efficiency has been questioned by some countries) to many affected countries of the world.

It can be said that the US-Chinese debate does not constitute an obstacle to the intensive effort made by laboratories in many countries of the world, some exchanging information and tests with China itself, to reach the awaited vaccine.

Furthermore, this controversy is unlikely to have deep implications on the relations between the two superpowers. The nature and tools of the debate are still within the approved limits and do not signal that Beijing and Washington will seek to turn the tables and change the rules of the game. Likewise, specialized military reports do not refer to any significant Chinese or US moves that would add to the controversy strategic dimensions whose nature would necessitate re-writing the rules followed in managing relations between the two countries. Pending the existence of further data, the controversy is fuelled by domestic US circumstances imposed by the requirements of the presidential elections campaign. The rising voices inside US political circles that demand holding China to account for its lack of transparency regarding the virus seem more of a case of domestic one-upmanship in support of President Trump’s efforts to renew his tenure in the White house in the elections that will be held next autumn. The international reaction in support of the viewpoint of the US administration goes along with its account in putting pressure on China to answer many questions. Yet that reaction remained moderate and did not exceed approved norms. This is because of the need by countries of the world to maintain their cooperative relations with Beijing and their keenness not to fuel with China a major crisis whose damage far exceeds its gains, especially that the upcoming coexistence with the epidemic and dealing with its implications require a mandatory cooperation between countries.

It is important within this framework to monitor Chinese performance to diffuse any tension in the world in terms of Beijing’s start to revise its number of deaths, which could be understood as a response to increasing international pressures which may be followed by other responses; in terms of its adoption of positions that show understanding to US elections circumstances and what President Trump himself needs to approach them; and in terms of not insisting on defending its positions, as was seen from Beijing’s remarkable backing down from a statement attributed to the Chinese ambassador in France which angered Paris and required him to be summoned and rebuked by French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian.

Conclusion

  • The US-Chinese controversy demonstrates that the content of the debate continues to be political and is fuelled by the agendas of both countries, whether the one related to the battle of the presidential elections to be fought by Trump next autumn, or the one relevant to China’s keenness not to get involved in any situation whereby it would be held responsible for this historic human catastrophe and not to undermine its future global economic position.
  • Intelligence and science communities have not ruled out the possibility that the virus was engineered and released from a laboratory in the Chinese city of Wuhan. However, they seemed cautious and are keen not to get involved in going along with the account of President Trump and the White House without conclusive evidence.
  • China is not worried about US accusations, realizing that the clamour raised by Trump is for local consumption, whether for defending the performance of the US administration in countering the pandemic or in President Trump’s need for a specific foe that he can target to build his election campaign and rally fans around him as the defender of the US and its interests against its enemies.
  • The tepid attitude by capitals allied to the US in adopting Washington’s account of how the virus spread reveals the state of mistrust that prevail over the relationship of Washington’s allies in the world with President Trump, as well as China’s advanced position, particularly in terms of its enormous capabilities to meet the needs of global markets, which curbs hastiness in any escalation of positions with China.
  • The current debate underlines the fact that the world order will not witness a fundamental change, although it may witness minor shifts whereby China would continue to coexist with the rest of the major countries. It also underlines that Washington and its allies have the upper hand which would prevent China from advancing its ranking on the scale of international power.
  • The debate sheds light on the fact that the scientific community continues to learn about coronavirus and has so far failed to agree on an accurate scientific account of the origin and path of the virus and how to treat its resulting morbidity and shield in advance against its spread. At the same time, it shows how flimsy the political discourse of any country would be if it is not based on solid scientific documents that are characterized by conclusiveness and certainty. 

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