As the world continues to grapple with the coronavirus outbreak, there is growing concern that China and the US, two countries with the greatest resources, are stuck in a propaganda-fueled dispute over the virus' origin. All the tough talk and finger-pointing is a dangerous distraction from the crisis as the infections and deaths continue to rise at an alarming rate, and threatens to distort science-based investigation while also lending credibility to conspiracy theories. This political chaos and the resulting information war is bad news for the whole world as it could hinder the global effort to halt the pandemic.
Even before the outbreak of the coronavirus, U.S.-China relations were mistrustful and combative. Trump waged a tariff war against China for most of his presidency and threatened the survival of Huawei, the telecom giant central to China’s strategy for state-of-the-art 5G technologies. The fraying of trust on trade, technology, and military deployments has played out as Beijing has expanded its global footprint, raising questions about its ambitions to alter the U.S.-centered international order.
But COVID-19 has made the geopolitical battle much worse. Relations between the two great powers have now reached their lowest point since the immediate aftermath of the Tiananmen Square massacre in June 1989. Both countries have suffered large-scale loss of life and a sharp economic slowdown, but political officials in both countries are working to protect their own domestic standing by blaming the other’s government for the spread of the virus.
Over the past few weeks, U.S. President Donald Trump has repeatedly blamed China for the pandemic, saying the country withheld information and should have stopped the virus before it spread past its borders, but perhaps it "chose not to.” In recent days, Donald Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have doubled down on the assertion SARS-CoV-2 escaped from a poorly regulated bio-lab, not an outdoor market, in Wuhan, the city in central China where the first cases of COVID-19 were detected. Intelligence agencies around the world, including in the US, have not reached any conclusions about the virus' origin but Trump has promised a "conclusive" report pointing to China. Trump has also expressed interest in suing Beijing for damages, with the US seeking $10 million for every American death and halted funding for the WHO, attacking the organization for “severely mismanaging and covering up the spread of the coronavirus” and being soft on China.
While the US has been taking every opportunity to remind the world that China is responsible for the virus, in March, as it began to recover from the outbreak, Beijing’s propaganda apparatus launched a global campaign to repair its damaged carefully curated image, rewrite the narrative of the crisis, challenge those who question Beijing's version of events and position itself as an emerging leader in world affairs. The claim that the virus orgininated in Wuhan lab has unsurprisingly drawn fierce rebuttal from the Chinese government, which described the accusation as "smear" intended to bolster Trump's reelection chances. China quickly offered humanitarian help and medical teams to hard-hit countries in Southeast Asia, Europe, and Africa, and its diplomats aggressively defended China’s handling of the crisis, even without evidence floating a conspiracy theory that the U.S. military created the outbreak in Wuhan. China is also increasingly aiming at the U.S. for bungling its own coronavirus response.
SCIENTISTS CAUGHT IN THE MIDDLE
While the coronavirus spat continues to make headlines in international media, scientists and public health officials are the ones caught in the middle of this war of words.
The WHO's emergencies chief, Michael Ryan, recently warned against politicising the scientific investigation into the origin of SARS-CoV-2. "We can learn from Chinese scientists, we can learn from each other, we can exchange knowledge and we can find the answers together," said Ryan, adding that scientists should be at the center of exploring where the virus came from. "If this is projected as aggressive investigation of wrongdoing, then I believe that's much more difficult to deal with. That's a political issue, not a science issue," said Ryan. "Science needs to be at the center. Science will find the answers," he added. "The implications of those answers can be dealt with from a policy and political perspective."
Keiji Fukuda, a former top official at the WHO and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said in an interview with CBC News that it is legitimate to question what happened in the early days of the coronavirus outbreak, and that identifying the origin of the coronavirus is important. But he would prefer to see an investigation come after the pandemic is under control. If the U.S. and Chinese leaders are blaming each other to rally their bases and politicise the pandemic, it may help them, he says. "But if the intent is really to deal with the outbreak, which is what the public should hold leaders accountable for, then it's not helping." Fukuda says scientists already have a tough enough job trying to get the facts right about a virus nobody's seen before. "When you put the political overtones on top of that ... scientists around the world have to worry about what it is that they say and how they present it," he said. "We have a harder time doing our jobs, and that's to everybody's detriment."
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Echoing similar sentiments, German sinologist Felix told Deutsche Welle: "Unfortunately, we are experiencing a situation where the question of COVID-19's origin, and the various strategies in fighting the pandemic, have become the subject of a propaganda war between the American and Chinese governments.” He added: “If the international community does not find a common answer to the global challenge of this and the next pandemic, the future looks bleak," he added.
The Chinese government's demonstrated lack of transparency has complicated the search into the origins of the disease and how it can be stopped. Beijing’s early response to coronavirus has been widely criticized across the world. Authorities in Hubei province initially tried to cover up the outbreak in Wuhan, punished doctors who spoke out and allowed millions of people to continue to travel. The delayed containment and mitigation measures potentially spread the pathogen further until it was too late to stop a global outbreak. Beijing is also accused of under-reporting both total cases and deaths from the disease.
About 100 nations have called for an independent investigation into the origins of the pandemic. Understanding how the virus evolved and knowing how it entered the US and other countries, would help public health experts and governments but so far, China seems unlikely to accept any international inquirywhich is undermining efforts tohone the best countermeasures to the virus’s global spread.
Pompeo has said that US authorities have made multiple formal requests for viral isolates and information about “patient zero”. When asked if he has received any replies, he told reporters they should ask the Chinese ambassador to Washington, Cui Tiankai. “Trying to obtain the earliest viral RNA in the pandemic is an important endeavour, but I just don’t understand the need to do that with the State Department first, and publicly with conspiracy theories that are still around,” David Larsen, a public health professor at Syracuse University who has studied the spread of malaria and other infectious diseases, told the South China Morning Post. He added: “Infectious disease doesn’t respect borders,” he added. “It doesn’t respect the political clashes between different nations, and so we need to figure out a way to work together, to have scientists work great together, because scientists could care less about the political drama.”
The Chinese government have also been accused of trying to steal coronavirus-related research on vaccines, treatments and testing. The FBI, in a joint statement with the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, said this month that it is investigating “the targeting and compromise of U.S. organizations conducting COVID-19-related research by [People’s Republic of China]-affiliated cyber actors and non-traditional collectors.” The potential theft of this information jeopardises the delivery of secure, effective, and efficient treatment options, according the statement.
“Biomedical research has long been at the heart of something the Chinese have wanted and something they have engaged in economic espionage to get,” John Demers, assistant attorney general for national security, told CNBC. “It would be crazy to think that right now, the Chinese were not behind some of the cyberactivity we’re seeing targeting U.S. pharmaceutical companies and targeting research institutes around the country that are doing coronavirus research, treatments and vaccines,” Demers said.
Trump’s fury at the World Health Organisation and his decision last month to freeze hundreds of millions of dollars of financial contributions to the group in the middle of a global pandemic, accusing it of promoting disinformation from China about the outbreak, has also raised concerns about what it means for the fight against coronavirus. The US also skipped a virtual summit of world leaders on coronavirus yesterday, co-hosted by Boris Johnson, and China only sent its ambassador to the EU. The nubs from both countries, in addition to the WHO funding cut, and prompted fears that the two countries’ rivalry could jeopardise efforts to build a broad international alliance to pool resources, share information and coordinate actions in the search for a universally available vaccine.
FERTILE GROUND FOR CONSPIRACY THEORIES
The Chinese government's demonstrated lack of transparency has also provided fertile ground for conspiracy theories. The claim that the virus was man-made has been pushed by numerous conspiracy groups on Facebook, obscure Twitter accounts and even found its way on to primetime Russian TV> While such rumours are not credible, given that neither the United States nor China has incentive to develop biological weapons, they are difficult to dispel, because military officials on both sides still view with suspicion each other’s motives in building biosecurity programs. And months into the outbreak, the conspiracy virus is continuing to spread and new, unverified claims have been promoted by government officials, senior politicians and media outlets in China and the US.
The claim that the novel coronavirus is a biological weapon is not only harmful but also scientifically unsupported. Scientists have rejected conspiracy theories that the virus was "engineered" by China, pointing out that mutations in the virus are “completely consistent with natural evolution.” According to The Lancet, scientists from multiple countries have “overwhelmingly” concluded that the novel coronavirus originated in wildlife. But the conspiracy theories have poisoned the atmosphere for U.S.-Chinese collaboration in addressing the outbreak, which might otherwise have presented an opportunity to reset the strained relationship.