By Lucas Leiroz, research fellow in international law at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro.
One of the most curious points about the COVID-19 pandemic is that, for the first time, the topic of biological weapons left the sphere of “conspiracy theories” and was brought to public debate, with representatives of governments and state institutions claiming to believe in the possibility that the new coronavirus has been the result of biological experiments for military purposes. This happened last year, during the first wave of the pandemic and at a time of sensitive international tensions and uncertainty about the near future. After that, for many months, the topic was not discussed, and the international society reached almost a consensus about the natural origin of the virus. However, recently, the topic has resurfaced in Western media, with authors pointing to a possible [Chinese] artificial origin of the virus, which motivated the American government to take investigative measures on the case, generating another diplomatic crisis with China.
A few weeks ago, discussion about a possible artificial origin of the new coronavirus began to increase in the western world. Suddenly, experts have begun to claim that “evidence” is appearing that the virus that causes COVID-19 has emerged in Chinese laboratories. Several media outlets began publishing articles emphasizing the possibility of an artificial origin of the virus. Some of these analysis were made by leading experts on the subject, such as the former head of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), Scott Gottlieb, who stated that “there is growing circumstantial evidence” that COVID-19 may have originated in a lab and not in nature. In the same vein, Anthony Fauci, chief medical adviser to President Biden, stated that he is not convinced that the virus is of natural origin and that “it could have been something else”.
Also, the Daily Mail published a piece sharing a study by British Professor Angus Dalgleish and Norwegian scientist Dr. Birger Sørensen, in which they supposedly expose evidences that the virus was artificially created by Chinese scientists, “who then tried to cover their tracks with ‘retro-engineering’ to make it seem like it naturally arose from bats”.
These factors motivated the US government to demand a more detailed report on the origin of the virus, requiring deeper investigations into the case. The problem, however, is that the Biden team did not demand such a report from doctors or biologists, but from intelligence agents. It is curious that an investigation of a strictly scientific nature is carried out by intelligence agencies. And this makes us question what methods will be used to obtain and analyze data. The report is currently in production and must be submitted to Biden within 90 days. In the same manner, on May 30, The Sunday Times newspaper published an article stating that “British intelligence agencies now believe it is “feasible” that the global pandemic began with a coronavirus leak from a Chinese research laboratory”.
Commenting on the American decision to investigate the virus through its intelligence agents, Beijing said that it is a “politicization” of the origin of the virus. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said: “This fully shows that the US side does not care about facts and truth, nor is it interested in serious scientific origin tracing, but wants to use the epidemic to engage in stigmatization and political manipulation, and to shirk responsibility.”
Also, Wang Wenbin, another spokesman for the Chinese Chancellery, stated: “I would like to stress again that the study of the origins of COVID-19 is a matter of science, not a political tool. It should be conducted by scientists all over the world in collaboration, not by the intelligence community or a few finger-pointing politicians”.
In fact, the American decision to find the origin of the virus through intelligence services is extremely dangerous because, not containing the empirical methods of science, intelligence agents can conclude anything from their investigations and certainly the research result will be influenced by political notions and pre-existing rivalries with China. Intelligence serves the country’s interests, not science – and the narrative that China created the virus serves American interests.
It is interesting, however, how the discourse of the Western media changes depending on which countries endorse the same narrative. At the beginning of the pandemic, Chinese, Russian and Iranian experts discussed the possibility that the virus had been created in a laboratory, which the West considered pseudoscience and conspiracy theory. The absence of evidence in the investigations stopped this narrative in these countries, but, months later, Washington resumes the same narrative, but accusing China – which is considered to be perfectly scientific and empirically valid by Western media.
The evidence points to a clear conclusion: Washington wants to endorse the narrative that the virus was artificially created by China – and then it will claim that Beijing produces biological weapons. This will further aggravate the strained relations between Chinese and Americans, but it will serve the plans of Biden, who tends to a more aggressive US policy towards China.
There is still hope, however, that WHO will not join the American discourse, supporting science, not political interests.