The novel corona virus outbreak (COVID-19) was first reported to the World Health Organization (WHO) in December 2019 from the city of Wuhan, Hubei province in China where the bulk of the cases’ morbidity and mortality have occurred to date. The outbreak has since spread to 73 countries affecting over 90,000 people and claiming over 3,100 deaths mostly from China, according to WHO.
Chinese authorities started draconian measures in mid to late January, from lockdowns to complete bans on travel within the city and expanded later to other major cities in the province. The government also built three quarantine hospitals in Wuhan to further contain the outbreak. These measures proved effective in curtailing the number of cases and deaths as the Chinese numbers started to taper off in late February while the opposite was happening in other countries as the virus spreads.
The alarming statistics from sources in China prompted other countries to implement travel bans, mandatory quarantines and testing, evacuations, among others; thus resurrecting the ghosts of the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) outbreak in 2003 and the 2012 Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) outbreak.
The leaked video of Li Wenliang, a Wuhan doctor summoned by Wuhan police for spreading rumors was himself infected by the virus and later died. His frantic rant about a cluster of deadly cases of viral pneumonia before the outbreak had been made public, became “viral” and prompted an outpouring of anger and grief from cyberspace.
The crescendo of media reports employing the use of adjectives to describe horrific details led to panic buying of masks in many cities, xenophobia trained on Chinese nationals, and drowned voices of health experts or administration officials losing their arguments to public opinions. But as in previous global outbreaks, everything seemed to follow a “normal” pattern involving global respiratory outbreaks.
WHO praised China’s proactive actions to stem the spread of the outbreak and renewed transparency. WHO declared a global emergency when the numbers started breaching the SARS mortality rate in China. The mortality rate outside of China is very much within the “normal” range when compared to previous global outbreaks or pandemics but it is uncharted territory, as WHO experts put it.
But the conversation went south when countries started banning flights from China, specifically started zeroing in on Chinese nationals and blaming just about everything to China despite the unprecedented steps China has taken that everyone acknowledged could only be done by authoritarian governments.
Perhaps the worst insult was American Senator Tom Cotton’s unfounded allegations on the senate floor that the Wuhan virus outbreak was caused by a bioengineered virus (man-made) from a Chinese military research laboratory and did not come from an animal market as the Wuhan health department claimed. “The virus went into that market before it came out,” he stated. Experts took turn in debunking Cotton’s claims.
Now comes the counter allegations that it was the United States who has somehow perfected the bioweapon targeting the human DNA of a particular ethnicity. They cited the nearly 3,000 kills among Chinese nationals as exhibit A. The counter allegations did not come from the Chinese government directly but somehow floated through the internet that referred to several “circumstantial” evidence.
First, it pointed to a global armed forces sports competition in Wuhan in October 2019, two months before the reported outbreak where 127 American personnel participated. The allegations were that part of the support staff included CIA operatives who used an android to spray the corona virus on pigs at a nearby market where it was identified as the source of the outbreak.
Secondly, China’s Thousand Talents Plan (TTP) that was implemented from 2012 through 2017 attracted several prestigious institutions. The TTP was an elaborate system that recruited overseas researchers (mostly with Chinese ethnicity) to send their skills home. It was a publicly implemented program that drew participants around the world including chemists, geneticists among others, from Canada and the United States.
Harvard University was one of the U.S. institutions who played an important role in all these. Several things came to light with this particular institution that bears some relevance to the ongoing corona virus outbreak.
The news that a prominent Harvard chemist along with two Chinese nationals were arrested by the FBI for concealing ties to China hit a nerve. U.S. officials say TTP encouraged economic espionage and theft of intellectual property, the issue at the heart of President Trump’s trade war with China. With China emerging as a leader in the field of genomics, is this a way of derailing it?
The spotlight on Harvard University, however, brought to light another collaborative research project between the US and China. From 1995-1998, blood samples were collected from farmers belonging to Chinese Muslim minorities in Anhui province. Reportedly, hundreds of thousands of blood and DNA samples were collected and shipped back to Harvard University for DNA research purportedly on various respiratory diseases. The university receives funding from the US National Institute of Health (NIH), Department of Defense (DoD) and big pharmaceutical companies to do research for them but was not revealed to Chinese authorities.
On the surface, the project was China’s attempt to create an image of a person’s face using a process called DNA phenotyping (facial recognition). The blood collection was apparently done under the veneer of a mandatory government health checkup but lacked the requisite informed consent from participants who in some cases, were interned or imprisoned. Regardless, both China and the US ditched the ethical part and clearly benefitted from the project.
The recent breaking news in January regarding Uighurs and Kazakhs being in Chinese internment camps seems nothing new given the above collaborative project but reportedly were part of the US disinformation campaign to further discredit the Chinese government at a time when it is reeling from the corona virus outbreak and involved in a trade war with the United States.
Same is true with another fake news regarding stolen corona virus from a Canadian research laboratory involving Chinese nationals. The gist of the story was that the corona virus that was developed in Canada were the same strain found in the Wuhan outbreak. This story was belied by Canadian authorities.
But as we say in the military, this is well above our paygrade. What we do know is that Facebook and other social media sources are not authoritative sources of actionable news. Conspiracy theories and fake news abound and are easily forwarded by well-meaning people that contributes to disinformation, more hysteria and xenophobia.
As the U.S. comes to grips with the reality that the corona virus has found its way to different parts of the country, the stories are repeating - stoking fears and driving people to act irrationally of panic buying, high demand for masks, quarantines, and politicians getting in the fray instead of allowing the experts to take charge of the situation.