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Workers handle swab samples for COVID-19 test at a hospital lab in Yantai in eastern China's Shandong province on Aug. 7, 2021. Alamy Stock Photo

Opinion If global leaders can't agree on the origin of Covid then what hope for future crises?

As global superpowers continue their war of words over the origin of Covid, Seána Glennon says the lack of cooperation doesn’t bode well for the future.

AS WE APPROACH the third anniversary of Leo Varadkar’s unexpected address to the nation from Washington, announcing an unprecedented and full-scale societal lockdown in response to the global outbreak of Covid-19, the US Department of Energy has concluded – albeit with “low confidence” – that the virus originated from an accidental laboratory leak in Wuhan, China.

The Director of the FBI has also recently announced that the Bureau has assessed the origin of the virus as due to a “potential lab incident”. There remains no consensus on how the outbreak began, with several other US agencies rejecting the lab-leak theory and positing a natural origin – the virus made the jump from animals to humans, possibly at a Wuhan “wet market” – and Beijing dismissing the lab-accident claim as having “no credibility whatsoever”.

An open debate over how the spread of Covid-19 began – obviously of great importance in planning to prevent or respond to a future outbreak – has been hampered by bitter pandemic politics. Donald Trump’s stoking of the US culture wars – referring to Covid as the “Chinese virus” and “kung flu” – has been linked to a surge in anti-Asian racism and hate crime.

In addition, the arguably premature dismissal of the possibility of a lab-leak origin as a conspiracy theory by more left-leaning news outlets and even the respected scientific journal The Lancet, helped stoke division and stymie useful discussion around the crucial question of how a virus emerged that caused the deaths of an estimated seven million people (and by some estimates, up to 20 million).

Taking drastic action

The suppression of open discussion around matters that concern all of us has highlighted the contemporary state of global politics as less “the art of the possible”, and more the art of making the possible impossible.

Look at the unfolding climate disaster. We know that the planet is becoming increasingly uninhabitable and we know that humankind has the ability to take drastic action to respond to such a global emergency.

The international response to the outbreak of Covid-19 – in which Ireland and many other countries changed overnight the way people lived their lives – was evidence, if evidence were needed, that societies are capable of reacting quickly and effectively to major disasters. Yet somehow, the climate crisis continues to be politically intractable.

Even relatively modest climate targets appear to be beyond reach, the government last week dropping its commitment, contained in the programme for government, to pass legislation banning the sale of fossil fuel cars by 2030. In the meantime, we are already seeing the consequences of our inaction: rising temperatures, extreme weather events, mass migration and food insecurity to name a few.

Global virus research

Returning to the politically toxic subject of the origin of Covid; in the midst of the rancour, a crucial and under-scrutinised problem has come to light: there are a large number of laboratories around the world undertaking so-called “gain of function” research – experimenting with adapting existing viruses to make them potentially more transmissible and deadly, in an effort to better understand how to respond to such strains should they emerge among the public – with little to no global regulation and oversight.

There is no global database of laboratories pinpointing what kind of research is being done under what level of security. The biosecurity experts Gregory Koblentz and Rocco Casagrande note that the US is home to more labs conducting high-risk research than anywhere else in the world, and have warned about the “patchwork” of regulations and policies applicable to pathogen research and the gaps that exist – all in a context of research done with good intentions, but which could result in the emergence of a highly dangerous strain of virus.

An overhaul of the system of oversight for this kind of research has recently been recommended by the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity in the US. The partisan nature of the discourse around the origin of Covid has, however, more stoked division than shed light on how to best support important research while maintaining safety and promoting cooperation and oversight on a global scale. The recent proposals for increased oversight have already received a mixed response.

On a global scale, given the current state of relations between the US and China, it is difficult to imagine the two countries facilitating a mutually transparent process of oversight and cooperating in working to prevent any future accidental outbreak.

We may never achieve an overall consensus on how the pandemic began. To a certain extent, it doesn’t actually matter if the virus originated by way of natural transmission or by way of lab accident; what matters is that we take seriously that a lab leak with devastating consequences is, in theory, possible, and that we work together on a global basis to agree a set of standards and a policy of transparency to best avoid this risk.

The fact that this has not been achieved, three years after the beginning of Covid’s trail of death and disruption, does not paint a positive picture for global cooperation on the future crises – most urgently the climate crisis – that await.

Seána Glennon is a lawyer and Chief Outreach Officer at UCD’s Centre for Constitutional Studies, currently a visiting scholar at Osgoode Hall Law School, Toronto.


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