American Intelligence to release report amid overshadowing rivalry with China
Kampala, Uganda | RONALD MUSOKE | Seventeen months since the UN World Health Organisation(WHO) declared COVID-19 a global pandemic, the world is waiting anxiously for a U.S Intelligence community report on the origin of the virus. The report is due in early September.
It comes at a time when bickering over how the virus came about remains a sensitive subject— especially among Chinese and American government officials.
Four months after swearing in, on May 26, U.S President Joe Biden tasked the U.S Intelligence community to join efforts to find SARS-CoV-2’s origins, whatever they might be, and report back in 90 days.
The virus that causes the COVID-19 disease was first discovered in the Chinese city of Wuhan in November, 2019, and has gone on to wreak havoc around the world. Influential people have accused China of not cooperating to get to the bottom of the virus’ origin.
As of Aug.26, over 213,920,000 people around the world had got infected with COVID-19. According to the Johns Hopkins University’s dashboard, 4,463,914 people have so far died of COVID-19.
The virus has caused economic and social disruption, led to millions of people losing their source of livelihood with many falling into extreme poverty.
The tetchiness of the COVID-19 origins debate is seen in how The Independent’s request for information from the WHO Country Office in Kampala and the Africa Centres for Disease Control in Addis Ababa was treated with either silence or awkwardness.
Some local epidemiologists who are usually open with information also declined to comment saying there is “politics involved.”
On Aug.14, the WHO urged all countries “to put differences aside” in order to speed up efforts to understand where and how the COVID-19 virus started. The WHO statement followed a joint report issued in March by WHO and the Chinese government into the origins of the coronavirus.
According to the UN agency which is in charge of coordinating the global response to health challenges, a review of that report had determined that there was “insufficient scientific evidence to rule-out any of the hypotheses” about the origins of the new coronavirus.
“(The) WHO calls for all governments to depoliticize the situation and cooperate to accelerate the origins studies, and importantly to work together to develop a common framework for future emerging pathogens of pandemic potential,” it said in a statement.
In a detailed statement, WHO explained that it had decided on a new series of scientific studies “that need to be undertaken” into “all hypotheses” about how the previously unknown pathogen crossed from animals to humans.
A new independent advisory group of experts, called the International Scientific Advisory Group for Origins of Novel Pathogens (SAGO), will now support the sensitive project by coordinating the studies recommended in the March report, it said.
WHO noted that in the interests of transparency, it would welcome nominations for the panel from all countries, adding that the experts’ work would resemble previous COVID-19 missions to China and those launched to hunt for the origins of avian influenza, Lassa virus and the Ebola virus.
The mission “is not and should not be an exercise in attributing blame, finger-pointing or political point-scoring,” the agency said.
According to experts The Independent has spoken to, knowing how COVID-19 emerged is critical for informing global strategies to mitigate the risk of future outbreaks.
“If you know, for instance, that the Coronavirus came from bats, then you would like to understand why the virus stays in the bats but does not make them sick,” says Prof. Pontiano Kaleebu, the director of the Uganda Virus Research Institute.
“This would then help us improve the intervention efforts in terms of developing drugs and vaccines,” he told The Independent on Aug.26.
John Makombo, the conservation manager at the Uganda Wildlife Authority also told The Independent on Aug.24 that everyone would wish to know how this virus emerged.
“For instance, if it is wildlife-related then we would wish to take the necessary precautions to protect our wildlife resources which are susceptible to infection,” he said.
But Dr. Gladys Kalema Zikusoka, the founder and chief executive officer of the Conservation Through Public Health (CPTH), a local conservation non-profit that promotes harmonious co-existence between wildlife communities also told The Independent on Aug.24 that she thinks the debate on the virus’ origins has been overshadowed by politics.
Zhang Lizhong, the Chinese ambassador to Uganda noted in a commentary published in a local newspaper on Aug.21 that “China supports science-based COVID-19 origin-tracing of the Coronavirus but he added, “What China opposes is politicizing origin-tracing that goes against the World Health Assembly (WHA) resolution and disregards the joint study report.”
“A certain country accused China of refusing cooperation on origin-tracing, but by doing so, it is ignoring the most obvious facts and tries to call white black, and name right wrong.”
Amb. Zhang noted that “no country has the right to put its own political interests above people’s lives, nor should a matter of science be politicized for the purpose of slandering and attacking other countries.”
“The future work of global origin-tracing should and must proceed from that basis, instead of starting all over again and ignoring all serious and productive efforts there from. China has all along supported and will continue to take part in science-based origin-tracing efforts.”
When The Independent asked for a response from the American embassy in Kampala, an official from the embassy said in email that: “We owe it to our people and people all around the world to look thoroughly and apolitically into the origins of COVID-19.”
“It is imperative to get to the bottom of the origin of this pandemic to help us understand how to prepare for the next one. The inquiry into the origins of this pandemic must be science-based and have access to the best information available.”
How bickering began
On Dec.30, 2019, the World Health Organization’s programme for Monitoring Emergency Diseases told the world about “pneumonia of unknown cause” in Wuhan, China. This was almost 43 days after a deadly flu-like virus had been detected in Wuhan city in the Chinese province of Hubei.
Since then, scientists have been investigating the origin of the pandemic that has devastated the world. Possible theories of the virus’ origin include one that the virus could have “escaped” from a wild animal market in Wuhan.
But another theory, which China contests but has its supporters in the U.S, is that there could have been an accidental release from a laboratory at the Wuhan Institute of Virology which, for years, has been studying Coronaviruses in bats.