Confronting China's COVID con
© getty: A medical worker takes a swab from a previously recovered COVID-19 coronavirus patient in Wuhan, China on March 14, 2020

It has been more than a year since initial reports began surfacing about a mysterious virus spreading throughout central China. Yet millions of lives lost and trillions of dollars later, the world is no closer to understanding COVID-19’s origins. If the Chinese government get its way, namely by exerting pressure on the World Health Organization (WHO) to limit the UN body’s investigation into the outbreak, we may never learn the truth.

One thing is clear: It is high time to put an end to China’s ongoing cover-up and to demand increased transparency from both Beijing and the WHO, whose reputations have suffered on account of their flawed pandemic responses. The real question is whether the WHO’s principal funders — Germany, Australia, Japan, the United States, and the United Kingdom — can foil China’s subterfuge before a WHO-led investigatory delegation arrives in China in a few weeks.

For months, governments and virus experts have been calling for a probe into China’s initial COVID-19 deceptions. Media leaks detailing a massive cover-up by the Chinese government at the onset of the pandemic have fueled these demands, in part because Beijing’s methods closely mirrored tactics China employed in 2002-2003 to conceal SARS. Meanwhile, as the virus began wreaking havoc around the world, the WHO’s leaders issued a series of baffling public statements praising China’s pandemic response, all the while privately expressing serious reservations among themselves about Beijing’s veracity.

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At nearly every turn, the Chinese government has sought to sow misinformation about the virus, at one point claiming that the U.S. military had developed it as a biological weapon. China has seemingly spared no country from its hostile campaign to protect its image, deploying its “wolf-warrior” diplomats to denigrate those calling for an independent investigation into China’s actions. In particular, Beijing has waged an ongoing pressure campaign against Australia, on which China has imposed a raft of trade measures affecting Australian exports. Beijing has also launched a harassment campaign against Australian journalists living and working in China.

It should therefore come as no surprise that China has sought to undermine the WHO’s upcoming plans to send a team of scientists to Wuhan. After months of diplomatic wrangling with the WHO, Beijing has gotten everything it could possibly want, from control over the delegation’s planned agenda to a vote in selecting its participants. China’s restrictions also appear to include a prohibition on any meetings with representatives from the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV), despite documented U.S. government concerns about the lab’s safety protocols. Such restrictions will do little to address outstanding questions about whether the virus may have inadvertently escaped from the lab in the first place.

Although the WHO delegation consists of scientists from Australia, Japan, and Denmark, these governments had no say over which of their citizens would ultimately be involved. Interestingly, the lone U.S. representative for the investigation, Peter Daszak, has maintained research and grant ties to WIV dating back more than 15 years. Daszak is also on the record as completely discounting the possibility that COVID-19 could have any links to WIV, raising serious questions about whether he has pre-judged the investigation’s outcome before it has even begun. Which brings us to the quandary facing the WHO’s funders, all of whom have a stake in ensuring the delegation’s success. To borrow a phrase from a recent speech Xi delivered on China’s science and technology sector, while “science has no borders, scientists have motherlands.” It is a sentiment that Western countries should embrace, namely by leveraging their own scientists to uncover the truth about the virus.

While it may be too late to demand substantive changes to the delegation’s itinerary, there is nothing stopping these governments from meeting with their scientists before and after their travel to China. Beyond sensitizing each scientist to the West’s information needs in anticipation of their arrival in Wuhan, government representatives should debrief each scientist immediately after the trip to obtain a full accounting of their experience. In some cases, it may make sense to task scientists with clandestinely collecting samples that Western experts can independently evaluate.

Each country should widely share any insights gleaned from these debriefings, not only to ensure that the WHO’s final report reflects reality, but also to help fill in some of the world’s knowledge gaps about the virus’ origins, some of which researchers can only obtain on the ground in Wuhan.

Bringing much-needed reform to the WHO and ultimately holding China accountable for its malign actions will figure prominently in the next administration’s national security agenda. But before the world can move forward, it must first look backwards. Confronting China’s COVID con is a good place to start.

Craig Singleton is a national security expert and former diplomat who served in the Bush, Obama, and Trump administrations. He currently serves as an adjunct fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) for its China Program. FDD is a nonpartisan think tank focused on foreign policy and national security.