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Kamis, 27 Mei 2021

Intelligence and science split as Wuhan lab theory gets presidential push - Sydney Morning Herald

Singapore: Declassifying active US intelligence briefings is not something a US president does lightly but Joe Biden has done just that.

In a statement released through the White House, Biden went to the centre of a debate that has been bubbling across the Five Eyes intelligence network for more than a year.

What role did the Wuhan lab play in the outbreak of COVID-19?

US President Joe Biden has called for the report to be delivered within 90 days.

US President Joe Biden has called for the report to be delivered within 90 days.Credit:AP

“As of today, the US Intelligence Community has ‘coalesced around two likely scenarios’ but has not reached a definitive conclusion on this question,” Biden said on Thursday.

He told intelligence officials to redouble their efforts and get closer to a “definitive conclusion” within 90 days.

The first scenario is COVID-19 emerged from human contact with an infected animal. The second is a laboratory accident that occurred during the study of viruses.

“Here is their current position,” said Biden. “While two elements in the intelligence community lean toward the former scenario and one leans more toward the latter – each with low or moderate confidence – the majority of elements do not believe there is sufficient information to assess one to be more likely than the other.”

That’s a two-to-one split, close to 60-40. Australian officials who were not authorised to speak on the record had similar estimates earlier this month of the likelihood of a Wuhan lab leak.

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After months of minimising the possibility as a fringe theory, the Biden administration is responding both to domestic and geopolitical concerns about putting pressure on China to be transparent about the outbreak.

There is no line of inquiry suggesting it was deliberately leaked or used as a bioweapon. Note Biden’s use of the word “accident” in his statement. Those who favour the intermediate animal host theory, including WHO investigators, have looked closely at wild frozen food from elsewhere in China as a possible source. This theory posits that a primary host, such as a bat, infected a secondary host such as a ferret-badger, which was frozen and then imported into the Wuhan wet market where the virus was first detected.

So where does that leave us?

Security personnel gather near the entrance of the Wuhan Institute of Virology during a visit by the World Health Organisation team in February.

Security personnel gather near the entrance of the Wuhan Institute of Virology during a visit by the World Health Organisation team in February.Credit:AP

We know how China will respond because of the Trump administration’s determination to pin the Wuhan Institute of Virology for the virus in the early days of the pandemic.

The White House was filled with misinformation on dozens of topics (voter fraud, using hydroxychloroquine and bleach to treat COVID) throughout most of Trump’s presidency. That made the leak theory an easy target for dismissal by both sceptics in the US and China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

China said the US was conducting a witch hunt and political smear campaign. After global pressure, led by Australia, it reluctantly agreed to allow World Health Organisation inspectors in to investigate COVID-19’s origins but only under tight controls, including restricting lab samples and interviews with scientists at the Wuhan lab.

Beijing called on the US and Europe to open its doors to the same inspectors. It fought theory with theory by suggesting the virus could have originated in the US or Europe.

This time the response is likely to be the same. Poisoned by broader distrust between China and the West, Beijing is not interested in meaningful levels of transparency, fearful that any shred of evidence could be used against it - regardless of its significance. Its greatest vulnerability is that to date, neither Chinese nor international scientists have been able to pinpoint the natural origin of the virus.

But without China’s full cooperation, access to labs, samples and exposure sites, the ability for concrete scientific conclusions to be drawn is curtailed.

Unfortunately, even with a new US president, the hunt for the origins of the virus that has killed almost 3.5 million people threatens to be less about science and more about geopolitics.

Given those circumstances, the greatest impact of the new report Biden has commissioned is likely to be on the views of the American public.

Biden has cast himself as a cautious president more driven by evidence than Trump. The elevation of the Wuhan lab theory comes with his credibility and will bolster the claims of those who believe the theory must be prosecuted, including former Trump administration officials and acolytes such as Steve Bannon.

Vaccines for COVID-19 were developed four times faster than any other vaccine in history but even on that scale, Biden’s quest for definitive answers is rapid.

It took researchers from the Wuhan Institute of Virology 15 years to find the bats responsible for the 2002 SARS outbreak in a cave in south-western China.

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2021-05-27 06:00:19Z
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