Debate over novel coronavirus source is a dead end

The toxic debates surrounding the source of the novel coronavirus run counter to the spirit of science and even threaten to undermine the fight against the pandemic. April 10, 2020
By Yang Xinhua and Jiang Xinyu

Bruce Aylward, an epidemiologist who led an advance team from the World Health Organization (WHO), speaks during a press conference of the China-WHO joint expert team in Beijing, capital of China, Feb. 24, 2020. [Photo/Xinhua]

Where did the novel coronavirus come from? It is an important and serious question. 

On April 3, confirmed cases of COVID-19 infections exceeded 1 million. The pandemic has now spread to more than 200 countries and regions. However, debates surrounding the source of the virus have not been settled in the three months since the outbreak began. As the pandemic continues to become more severe, the debates have also repeatedly become the focus of public opinion at home and abroad. 

The history of humanity's fight against infectious diseases is also a history of tracing and exposing pathogens. Compared with pandemics throughout history, the novel coronavirus was born in an era with highly developed medical technology. Achievements in molecular biology, gene sequencing technology, artificial intelligence, sophisticated epidemiological models and big data have provided scientists with abundant tools for tracing the virus. Very early on, some scientists drew the preliminary conclusion that the novel coronavirus was derived from bats. 

Although bats are believed to be the source of the virus, a series of mysteries remain to be solved, such as the identity of the intermediate host, the history of virus's mutation and how the virus came into contact with humans. Answers to these questions are important because they help us understand where the virus comes from and where it will go, as well as being useful for developing vaccines and effective drugs.

Answers to these questions could take time. After the SARS epidemic subsided, a team led by Shi Zhengli of the Wuhan Institute of Virology under the Chinese Academy of Sciences took ten years to identify the horseshoe bat as the source of the SARS virus.

However, for many media outlets and the vast majority of the public the "source" of the virus is one and the same with the place of the first outbreak and the location of patient zero. This has allowed them to attribute responsibility of the global pandemic to specific countries.

There have also been attempts to manipulate public opinion, politicize the pandemic and stigmatize certain countries. These actions have diverted public attention from the real battle against the pandemic. 

Among those politicizing the pandemic on the pretext of tracing the source, the stigmatization of China by U.S. politicians has been particular severe. U.S. President Donald Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo frequently used the terms "Chinese virus" and "Wuhan virus" on Twitter and their public comments. They even tried to push to include the phrase "Wuhan virus" in a joint statement of G7 foreign ministers.

The "demonstrative effect" of prominent politicians' stigmatizing China and obviously biased reports by some Western media outlets have injected a "political virus" into international public opinion, causing China's national image to suffer a wave of vicious attacks. Consequentially, this has made it harder for many Chinese and Asian communities who are facing heightened racial discrimination and public resentments due to COVID-19. The look of hatred is everywhere and it is as frightening as the novel coronavirus.

Labeling COVID-19 with a nationality undoubtedly hides the sinister intention of attributing "original sin" to the place where the epidemic first occurred. After domestically defeating the epidemic by mobilizing national resources and making great sacrifice, China has quickly joined the global fight against the pandemic in the spirit of returning a favor. China has sent medical experts and provided materials to many countries with outbreaks.

However, in some Western media coverage, the great love and virtuous acts displayed by the Chinese government and people are often disparaged as "atonement" and "mask diplomacy" with political motives. Although the World Health Organization (WHO) and international authoritative figures have repeatedly confirmed that China's initial response to the outbreak was rapid, decisive and transparent, some U.S. politicians and media outlets have repeatedly attacked China. They claim that China concealed the nature and extent of the outbreak and was not transparent. Ultimately, they want to make China bear unlimited liability for the worldwide spread of the virus.  

As confirmed cases in the U.S. now far exceed other countries, the American government and politicians are facing a domestic backlash for failing to safeguard the American people. This has led to the practice of shifting responsibility and reassigning blame to China.

Many conspiracy theories about the virus have also spread in China. These include claims that the virus was brought into Wuhan by the United States military, and that the virus appeared in Italy at the end of 2019. It is noteworthy that these unsubstantiated claims are often widely circulated in the form of "conspiracy theories," which evolve into vehicles for tearing apart social opinion and spreading populist sentiment. At the same time, many netizens have a double standard when dealing with the source of the virus. On one hand, they become very indignant when China becomes a target of stigma, but then rush to believe and share information identifying the "source" of the virus as another country without requiring more evidence. This is squeezing the otherwise scarce space of rational public opinion.

Where the new coronavirus originated should be pursued with a genuine spirit and scientific attitude, especially at a time when it poses a serious threat to the security of tens of millions of human lives. The question of which country should and can be held accountable for the coronavirus is actually a false proposition that can easily lead people into an either/or dead end.

As with many major epidemics of infectious diseases that have occurred in human history, and as with SARS, MERS, Ebola, H1N1, H7N9 and other epidemics that people have already encountered since entering the era of globalization, the responsibility for combating COVID-19 must be shared by all those who are threatened by it. It was in the light of the lessons of history that the WHO published best practices for naming new human infectious diseases in 2015, explicitly stating that disease naming should be avoided in relation to geography, race, name of person, etc.

The virus has no nationality and no borders. The result of beggar thy neighbor, standing idly by and even gloating over the calamity, is only to make oneself face the epidemic with less international moral support.

The COVID-19 epidemic is in full swing, and the vision of a community with a shared future for mankind has never been more realistic. Both the United States and China are still facing a tough test. If toxic debates surrounding the "source of the virus" continue, it will run counter to the spirit of science and do nothing to curb the epidemic. The resulting confrontation will tear apart the line of defense against the pandemic.

(Translated by Yang Xi)

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