The news that Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, head of the World Health Organisation, is to attend the Winter Olympics in Beijing is baffling on a number of levels. Has he not got a day job to do? There is a pandemic on.
“Sources close to” him say it would be a “political statement to turn down the invitation”, which indicates ludicrous delusions of grandeur: he is a bureaucrat, not a head of state, let alone a “dignitary”.
But if Adhanom Ghebreyesus does want to play the politician, with most Western governments boycotting the games, his attendance shows an alarming complacency about the persecution of the Uyghurs, the crushing of freedom in Hong Kong and the lack of transparency in finding the source of Covid-19.
It is worth listing the ways in which the Chinese authorities have failed to help the WHO do its job over the past two years. They did not tell it, as they are duty bound to do, about the initial outbreak. The WHO says it learned about the virus on 31 December 2019 from media reports and a statement on the Wuhan Municipal Health Commission’s website, having been tipped off by an email from Taiwan, a country the WHO refuses to recognise exists – at China’s insistence.
On 14 January 2020, the WHO tweeted that China had seen no new cases in 10 days and that “there is no clear evidence of human-to-human transmission”, a disastrous error that resulted from gullibly accepting what the Chinese government was saying. On 30 January, at China’s insistence, the WHO declined to declare a pandemic.
That day Dr Tedros returned from a visit to Beijing congratulating China’s government, praising “beyond words” its “commitment to transparency”. My irony meter malfunctioned on reading these comments: at the time the Chinese government was punishing people for publicising anything about the disease. It had already rebuked a Shanghai scientist for sharing the virus genome sequence with the world a week after it was sequenced. The chances of Dr Tedros using the games as an occasion to deliver some home truths to Xi Jinping seem small.
During 2020 the WHO took several months to negotiate the terms of a visit to China to investigate the origin of the virus. When that team eventually visited Wuhan in January 2021, they were treated to a strictly controlled tourist itinerary that included a museum and the wrong campus of the Wuhan Institute of Virology, followed by a risible press conference at which they endorsed a fanciful Chinese theory that the virus might have been imported from frozen food.
During these many months, the British government kept telling me that we should leave it to the WHO to carry out such investigations. So the WHO’s role was to prevent a proper investigation, albeit inadvertently.
China’s government is playing for time. It has published nothing useful about the pandemic’s origin for many months and the WHO shows no sign of minding. Perhaps their admiration for such lethargy is “beyond words”. The mandarins of Beijing hope the water will gradually close over the topic.
Depressingly, that hope is plausible because it is widely shared in the west. Virologists fear that proving (nay, investigating) a lab leak as the potential cause might affect their grants; medics are alarmed that it might reduce faith in experts and even vaccines; vice-chancellors that it might interfere with the lucrative supply of Chinese students, businessmen that it might chill their opportunities in China; politicians that it might complicate diplomatic efforts with the east. Very few people have a vested interest in solving the mystery even though it is vital to preventing another pandemic.
In 1979 another totalitarian regime covered up a mistake at a biowarfare plant in Sverdlovsk (Yekaterinburg today), which had resulted in 64 people dying of anthrax. When challenged by the West, they invited a team led by an American Nobel-prize winner, Matthew Meselson, to investigate. He endorsed the Soviet explanation that the people had died of food poisoning. Then came a change of regime, with the fall of the Soviet Union, and Dr Kanatjan Alibekov defected, bringing with him details of the secret anthrax work. It might take a change of regime in this case too, but we owe it to the millions who have died to find out.
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Matt Ridley’s latest book Viral: The Search for the Origin of Covid-19, co-authored with scientist Alina Chan from Harvard and MIT’s Broad Institute, is now available—in the United States, in the United Kingdom, and elsewhere.