What the Pandemic Has Exposed About the Politics of Public Health

A WHO report raises new questions about China’s honesty and the ability to hold them to account.

As carnage from the coronavirus keeps piling up around the world, the question at the heart of the outbreak has remained unanswered: Where did the virus actually originate, and how did it make the jump to humans in Wuhan, China, in late 2019?

Over the past year, China has provoked international anger by repeatedly clamping down on outside attempts to investigate this question. But late last year, China struck a deal with the World Health Organization to permit an exception. Working alongside Chinese scientists, a WHO team would be allowed to visit key locations in Wuhan to attempt to settle key questions about what sparked the deadly pandemic.

The team wrapped up a two-week work visit this week, announcing the preliminary results in a press conference Tuesday. The scientists characterized the collaboration as a hopeful step forward for international cooperation in understanding the origins of the virus. Rather than settle the question, however, their findings have raised new questions about China’s honesty and the ability of international organizations like the WHO to hold them to account.

The top line finding that the researchers announced was unsurprising, even modest: The likeliest explanation for the disease’s origins, they said, was that a mutated coronavirus had made the jump from a wild animal to humans by means of an intermediary host, perhaps a domestic animal brought from a farm to market. That’s in keeping with what international researchers have long maintained is the most intuitively sensible theory, although no direct ancestor of the coronavirus in question has been located in the wild.

By contrast, it was the WHO team’s findings related to other hypotheses of the virus’s origin that raised many eyebrows. To begin with, the task force gave significant time to a theory that the outbreak might not have originated in China at all, but arrived in Wuhan on frozen food shipped from another country. The so-called “cold chain” theory has no solid evidence to recommend it, but the Chinese Communist Party and state media have treated it as all but settled science in recent months. In a recent interview, the Chinese government’s top epidemiologist said: “More and more evidence suggests that the frozen seafood or meat products probably spread the virus from countries with the epidemic into our country.”

At their Tuesday press conference, the WHO team did not reveal they had discovered any reason to believe the cold chain theory was anything more than conspiracy-mongering on the part of the Chinese government. But they also said they had not ruled out the theory, and that it required further investigation.

The task force was much more forceful, however, in ruling out another theory: that the virus had escaped from a laboratory at the nearby Wuhan Institute of Virology. Built in 2003 in the wake of the SARS crisis, the laboratory was China’s first to operate at the highest biosafety classification, and some of the research carried out there involved studying and sequencing bat coronaviruses.

As with other hypotheses of the pandemic’s origin, there is no public evidence linking the lab to the outbreak beyond the circumstantial: Like the livestock hypothesis, it would explain how an apparent bat-derived virus started killing people without warning in an area 1,000 miles from where any such bats live. But this was the single theory on which the WHO team emphatically slammed the door.

“The findings suggest that the laboratory incidents hypothesis is extremely unlikely to explain the introduction of the virus to the human population,” said Danish food scientist and WHO mission leader Dr. Peter Ben Embarek. The group was so confident in this finding that it announced WHO would not pursue further inquiries into the possibility.

How could they discover this with such certainty through an investigation conducted a year after the fact? Dr. Peter Daszak, the group’s only U.S. participant, told The Dispatch he was confident in the conclusion in large part because he had long collaborated on work with scientists at the Wuhan Institute of Virology. (You can read a transcript of our conversation here.)

“Working with that lab in Wuhan for 15 years, talking to technicians, having our staff embedded in that lab, you learn a lot,” Daszak said in an interview Tuesday. “There was no cover-up. There was no ‘you can’t come in this room, you can’t see that data.’ … I never got a strange feeling that I was being told one thing, then something else. There was no hidden agenda, there was no hidden laboratory.”

This was not a new determination by Daszak, who as far back as last April called the notion that the virus had escaped from the Wuhan lab “pure baloney.”

Back in America, the WHO team’s announcement of its findings got a chilly reception. China hawks like Sen. Tom Cotton, who has long argued that the lab leak theory is a plausible explanation for the virus’s origins, ridiculed the notion that China had been “exonerated” by an investigation carried out with the blessing and under the eye of the Chinese Communist Party.

And it wasn’t just Republicans. President Joe Biden directed his administration to rejoin the WHO last month, overturning his predecessor’s decision to pull the country out of it over the summer. But this week, several administration officials pumped the brakes on the WHO’s findings, saying that while the United States looks forward to reviewing WHO data, it will ultimately rely on its own intelligence sources to reach its own conclusions about the virus’s origin.   

“Rather than rush to conclusions that may be motivated by anything other than the science, we want to see where that data leaves us, where that science leads us,” State Department spokesman Ned Price told reporters Tuesday. “And our conclusions will be predicated on that.”

On Twitter, Daszak bristled publicly over the Biden administration’s response, scoffing that Biden “has to look tough on China” and telling people not to “rely too much on U.S. intel: increasingly disengaged under Trump and frankly wrong on many aspects.”

But there’s a reason for U.S. skepticism. It’s hard to emphasize enough how irresponsibly the Chinese Communist Party has handled information about the pandemic. From its earliest days until the present, China has not only pushed false and misleading propaganda to fight the idea that it bears responsibility for the pandemic but also used state force to quash both domestic and international attempts to get real information into the public eye.

At the outset of the pandemic, as it was becoming clear that the virus rearing its head in Wuhan was no ordinary bug, Chinese scientists who attempted to sound the alarm were silenced by the party, which still was officially denying human-to-human transmission. 

By spring, once the realities of the disease became impossible to ignore, China at once pivoted to spreading misinformation about its origins, planting lies that, for instance, the U.S. military had deliberately introduced the virus to Wuhan. In March of last year, China expelled a number of American journalists working at prominent publications from the country. 

Subsequent attempts by international teams to report on the likely origins of the disease were foiled by Chinese government efforts. In December, a BBC team was attempting to investigate a copper mine in southwest China; Chinese scientists had been conducting research on bats in the region after six miners fell ill and three died of a mysterious illness back in 2012. The crew was tailed by plainclothes police along roads they found blocked by “broken-down” trucks; they were ultimately prevented from seeing the mine. A month prior, a crew from the Associated Press had reported similar treatment

Meanwhile, independent researchers were still being denied access to sites key to our understanding of the early pandemic, including the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market and the Wuhan Institute of Virology. 

The pandemic has also highlighted the depressing fact that the World Health Organization, which holds little central power and relies on ongoing buy-in from member states to function, has frequently bent over backward to avoid offending China. Perhaps the most striking example came last March. Dr. Bruce Aylward, a Canadian doctor who was leading the WHO’s team on the pandemic in China, was interviewed by a Hong Kong news outlet, which asked him to comment on how Taiwan had been handling the pandemic. In an awkward video, Dr. Aylward initially pretended not to hear the question and, when pressed, abruptly ended the call. Reached again later and pressed once more to comment on Taiwan, he tersely replied that “we’ve already talked about China.” 

The reason, of course, was that the CCP is incredibly touchy about anyone acknowledging the existence of a state known as “Taiwan,” which they consider merely to be a province of China. For a supposedly independent international institution to take such pains to avoid offending one member state’s propagandistic shibboleths does not speak well to its ability to hold that state to account should the need arise. 

To some, moments like this are evidence that organizations like the WHO function as mere puppets of the Chinese when the chips are down. Senator Cotton, for instance, has frequently derided the organization as “Chinese Communist Party apologists.” Such readings can’t be ignored out of hand, given China’s well-documented strategy of trying to insinuate itself into positions of control at multilateral institutions through both open pressure and illicit means.

But it’s important to realize there’s also an understandable reason public health organizations like the WHO see scientific rapprochement with China as a thing to be maintained at almost any cost: In recent decades, they’ve been among the nations where we’re likely to see new potential pandemic disease emerge, simply due to the sheer number of people living in close proximity both to one another and to live animals. When it comes to such diseases, it’s impossible to overstate how important it is to be prepared in advance—think of the comparative ease with which COVID could have been stamped out had it been isolated in a single town or city, compared to today, when it has throttled the globe. It’s easy to see why organizations who consider this work crucial to the flourishing of the entire world aren’t eager to throw it away over diplomatic political wrangling.

“I think after SARS hit, China developed a more open attitude toward its science,” Dr. Gregory Gray, an epidemiologist and professor at Duke University who performs infectious disease research at labs in China, told The Dispatch. “Right now in China, I know this from Chinese collaborators, there’s a lot of close scrutiny … the government is concerned that they protect their reputations. So it depends on which way the pendulum goes—if that concern continues to reduce free exchange of information, then we’re in a bad situation, because we think a lot of emerging infectious diseases are coming out of China.” 

“If this [WHO] report is well-received,” he continued, “and the Chinese risk of letting these foreigners in proves to be conducive to being more open, then that’s a good thing.” 

“Our projects on the ground in China have been on hold for over a year because of this politicization,” Daszak said. “I believe this is hopefully the beginning of the end to that frosty relationship. We’ve got a new administration in the U.S. We need to collaborate to understand why pandemics emerge. And if they emerge in countries that aren’t our best allies, we still have to collaborate, because it’s to our benefit in the U.S. It’s to our country’s national security benefit to stop these outbreaks before they even leave the country they originate in.” 

“I think that’s something the Trump administration really missed on this issue,” he went on, “that having people on the ground in countries that you don’t quite fully trust their agenda actually gives you some intelligence that otherwise you don’t have. And I think that’s the real problem. I’m not talking about security intelligence; I’m talking about pandemic intelligence. We need to treat these pandemics as an existential threat to our citizens and our planets. And if we’re not going to go to these places and really get a deep understanding of what’s going on, it’s us that lose. We don’t have access to the knowledge about viruses that could emerge.” 

The flip side of the coin, of course, is that the Chinese government realizes all this. It’s the very fact that institutions like the WHO are less interested in diplomatic positioning than in ensuring an environment where crucial science can go forward that makes their political pressure on these organizations so insidious; Chinese non-negotiables become baseline talking points with the stamp of multilateral legitimacy.

When it comes to this week’s WHO task force, of course, how WHO leadership has handled diplomatic relations with China doesn’t tell the whole story. Gray pushed back on the idea, for instance, that the team was either hornswoggled by Chinese propagandists or deliberately engaged in a cover-up—this was a team of internationally renowned epidemiologists pulled from a number of nations, after all, not a blue-ribbon committee of bureaucratic functionaries.

“Some of the people in that committee are very knowledgeable regarding high-containment facilities—you know, they run them. So if they say what they saw with respect to biosecurity and biosafety, and the testimony of people convinced them that the Chinese were doing an excellent job, I have to defer to them, because they would not easily be deceived,” he said. 

He added: “You’ve got more than a dozen people that will have their own opinions. And over time they’ll be expressing those. They’re not bound in the same way as if they were all working for the same organization. So I’m giving the committee the benefit of the doubt with respect to what I know about their report.” 

In the weeks to come, the WHO team will likely release a full accounting of the data that led them to the conclusions they announced on Tuesday. In the meantime, however, China has not been idle. State media has been trumpeting the results of the probe as nothing short of a vindication of all its claims about the origins of the virus and the mendacity of the United States. 

The Chinese CDC’s top epidemiologist, Zeng Guang, was quoted as saying that now that China’s lab has been acquitted, it’s time for U.S. labs to undergo international scrutiny. After all, “historically the United States … launched biological and chemical warfare.”