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We can’t prevent another pandemic without China’s help

People wearing face masks show their results on a health checking app to a security guard as they enter a tourist shopping street in Beijing, Friday, Oct. 7, 2022.
(AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein)
People wearing face masks show their results on a health checking app to a security guard as they enter a tourist shopping street in Beijing, Friday, Oct. 7, 2022. Friday is the last day of China’s National Day holiday period. (AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein)

As the world attempts to move on from COVID-19, we must not lose sight of the fact that over 6 million people have died and the global economy is facing significant challenges resulting from the pandemic. The international community must come together to understand how the pandemic started and take steps to avoid another.

Unfortunately China — where the pandemic originated — has put the world at risk by blocking these efforts.   

There are two theories of COVID-19’s origination. The first and still most likely scenario according to scientists is that it came from a “wet market” in Wuhan, a provincial city in central China. COVID-19 is thought to have crossed the zoonotic barrier from wildlife to humans due to unsanitary conditions there.

The other theory is that it leaked out of a virus research laboratory. Wuhan just so happens to be the headquarters of China’s leading facility for such research. While many scientists seem to think that the wet market theory is most likely, it is a rather extraordinary coincidence for such a virus to have its start in that location.

The bottom line is that evidence indicates that one of these two scenarios is correct. But that isn’t any consolation because China has stridently refused to accept any responsibility for COVID’s beginnings. Instead, it has restricted investigation efforts and made implausible statements about how the virus originated, including that it reached China through the imports of U.S frozen food.

The sad truth is that we’ve been here before. Prior to COVID-19, SARS began in China and its infamous wet markets. When I was a journalist in the mid-2000s I covered the fallout from SARS and visited the wet markets in Guangdong, where the most notorious of these markets are located. I found them curtailed, with most of the exotic wildlife hidden from sight or no longer for sale. Vendors were reluctant to talk to a Western journalist, and it was clear that the government had cracked down.

But the restrictions were only temporary. Soon afterward, the markets were back to responding to the tastes of the locals in southern China who will famously eat anything “if it has got four legs and it is not a chair, if it has got two wings and it flies but is not an airplane, and if it swims and it is not a submarine,” as Philip, Duke of Edinburgh once said of the Cantonese. China has offered no reassurances that another virus will not be incubated in these dangerous markets, only angry denials and wild conspiracy theories.

The international community should not allow China to stifle our understanding of the pandemic’s origins and how we might avoid another catastrophic new virus.  

China has responsibilities as a member of the World Health Organization (WHO) and as a signatory to the 2005 International Health Regulations made the commitment to the global community to warn the world in a timely manner of any public health emergency originating within its borders and to share all details on the crisis in a transparent manner. China failed on both when it dragged its heels in alerting the world to the incipient crisis in late 2019 and then refused to fully cooperate with international investigators seeking to understand how the pandemic started.

After the pandemic began to spread around the world, Australia called for an independent inquiry into its origins and China was apoplectic. It placed restrictions on a wide swath of Australian imports in response, showing just how scared it was of the idea of such an inquiry gathering steam. The WHO inquiry that followed, with China’s grudging cooperation, produced a report that failed to fully address the Wuhan lab theory and was considered to be weak by many. China shut down the effort for a second phase of the study that would have included audits of its laboratories.

But much has changed since the pandemic. Many global businesses are rethinking China as a base for their manufacturing. China’s economic growth has slowed and it is mired in the travails of its “Zero COVID” policies.

Perhaps most importantly, Australia has weathered China’s economic coercion rather well. The products that were at first most impacted — such as coal, barley and cotton — found other markets. Nations should take note the next time China attempts to weaponize trade, as it has done in recent years with JapanLithuania and Canada as well. China should remember that it needs international trade more than the world needs China as a market or manufacturer.

The international community should demand that the wet markets do not ever again operate as they have in the past, with new regulations put in place to improve sanitary conditions and restrictions on the types of wildlife that are sold and slaughtered there. Regular inspections by international scientists would be a good idea.

China should be reminded that Article 1 of the International Law Commission’s 2001 Responsibility of States for Internationally Wrongful Acts states that it is responsible for internationally wrongful acts. Article 2 states that “wrongful acts” are those that breach international obligations, which China did on several occasions when it downplayed what was happening in late 2019 and when it refused to fully cooperate with international investigators. The United Nations should set up a commission to fully investigate China’s failures and explore the idea of it paying trillions of dollars in reparations in light of the millions of deaths and incalculable economic losses due to COVID-19.

If the world is to take China seriously as a great power — which is what China wants — it must take the concerns of the world seriously. That should start with united demands of accountability for how the pandemic started and transparent commitments to reducing the risk of another global health crisis arising in the same way. 

Jeremy Hurewitz is a policy advisor on national security for the Joseph Rainey Center for Public Policy. He was a journalist overseas for a decade, has worked at Deloitte’s Chinese Services Group, and is the Founder of Challenger Hill Consulting

Tags Coronavirus COVID-19 Politics of the United States SARS Wet Markets World Health Organization's response to the COVID-19 pandemic Wuhan lab

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