Questions mount on origin of COVID-19 as PRC vaccine diplomacy flounders
Several weeks after the release of the World Health Organization’s (WHO’s) Wuhan report probing the origins of the coronavirus, many experts and nations remain frustrated with the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC’s) ongoing lack of transparency on the virus.
The U.S. intelligence community is investigating whether COVID-19 accidentally escaped from the Wuhan Institute of Virology or through a natural emergence, Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines, pictured, confirmed at an April 14, 2021, Senate Intelligence Committee hearing, according to news reports.
“It is absolutely accurate the intelligence community does not know exactly where, when or how [the] COVID-19 virus was transmitted initially,” Haines testified, according to the Washington Examiner newspaper. “And basically, components have coalesced around two alternative theories. These scenarios are, it emerged naturally from contact with infected animals or it was a laboratory accident. … But we’re continuing to work on this issue and collect information and do the best we can essentially to give you greater confidence in what the scenario is.”
Even at the time of the WHO report’s release in late March, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the agency’s director-general, rebuked the PRC, saying, “As far as WHO is concerned, all hypotheses remain on the table” in terms of the origin of the virus. The report determined that the possibility the virus escaped from the Wuhan lab was “extremely unlikely” to the chagrin of many experts and observers.
“I do not believe that this assessment [of the lab-leak hypothesis] was extensive enough,” Tedros said. “Further data and studies will be needed to reach more robust conclusions.”
Fourteen nations, including Australia, Canada, Japan, South Korea, the United Kingdom and United States, released a joint statement March 30 calling for “a transparent and independent analysis and evaluation, free from interference and undue influence.”
Moreover, the administration of U.S. President Joe Biden asserted that the WHO mission was blocked from reviewing key data sets, which meant the report provided “a partial and incomplete picture,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said at a news conference, according to The Washington Post newspaper. The PRC has “not been transparent, they have not provided underlying data. That certainly doesn’t qualify as cooperation,” Psaki said.
U.S. Central Intelligence Agency Director William Burns agreed with Haines’ analysis in his April 14 testimony before the U.S. Senate, the Washington Examiner reported. “The one thing that’s clear to us and to our analysts is that the Chinese leadership has not been fully forthcoming or fully transparent in working with the WHO or in providing the kind of original complete data that would help answer those questions. We’re doing everything we can using all the sources available to all of us on this panel to try to get to the bottom of it.”
A fact sheet distributed by the U.S. State Department in mid-January 2021 revealed that Wuhan virology lab workers experienced coronavirus-like symptoms in 2019 and that scientists at the Wuhan virology facility studied viruses genetically similar to the coronavirus, genetically modified bat coronaviruses and conducted experiments with the Chinese military, among other details.
Meanwhile, the PRC’s vaccine diplomacy has been faltering on a broader scale worldwide, according to news reports. “Despite big funds and high hopes invested in the Chinese vaccine drive, it has not been the major success it was expected to be, at least in Southeast Asia,” The ASEAN Post website reported April 6, 2021.
Declining enthusiasm may be attributable to the fact that the efficacy of the Chinese COVID-19 vaccines, Sinovac and Sinopharm, have not been clearly demonstrated and scant late-stage test data has been released.
Chinese COVID-19 vaccines are proving less effective compared to their Western counterparts, according to new studies. For example, a Brazilian study found the Sinovac shot has an efficacy of 50.7% two weeks after the second dose, Reuters reported. Western vaccines, such as the Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna formulations, have demonstrated efficacy rates of greater than 90%.
The head of the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, Gao Fu, openly admitted in early April that “current vaccines don’t have very high protection,” but then a day later said his remarks were “taken out of context,” the Financial Times newspaper reported. Gao likely backtracked under internal pressure from the Chinese government, analysts said.
The lack of confidence in the Chinese vaccines has contributed to distribution issues with the Chinese doses in places from Hong Kong to Kyrgyzstan, according to news reports.
At the same time, a U.S.-led initiative to distribute 2 billion doses of COVID-19 vaccines by the end of 2021 through an international alliance to more than 90 low- and middle-income countries worldwide is gaining momentum. By mid-April, more than 38 million doses had been distributed to dozens of countries through the global partnership, according to the ShareAmerica website.
IMAGE CREDIT: THE ASSOCIATED PRESS