Tuesday, March 07, 2023

US partial about-turn on COVID origins makes Chinese relations even trickier

Up until recently, pretty much everyone except for hard-core conspiracy theorists was united in the belief that the COVID-19 pandemic originated naturally in an animal-to-human transmission through the "wet market" in Wuhan, China. This was settled science, arrived after substantial amounts of research and forensic investigations.

In fact, this is still the settled science, but the waters have been muddied somewhat by claims from the US Department of Energy and the FBI, who now suddenly believe that COVID originated in a lab incident in a Wuhan infectious diseases laboratory.

Why we should believe this new, unexplained version of the story, over the well-researched transparent conclusions of pretty much every other country, organization and stakeholder, is not clear. But there are many who, for reasons (mainly political) of their own, have already latched on to this as support for their own ill-founded conspiracy theories.

The US Energy Department (and why are THEY involved anyway?) made its revised determination last week, although it cautioned that it only had "low confidence" in it. Then, Christopher Wray, director of the FBI, used an appearance on Fox News (of all places) to endorse the DoE's revised opinion. And all this comes just days after yet more evidence was released confirming that the Wuham market is the most likely source of the virus.

No-one seems willing (or able?) to explain just what important new revelation has led to this change of heart. But they have to have known that it represents a political bombshell that will be exploited by any number of bad actors for their own purposes. Fox News and the Republican Party have both called on President Biden to declassify the new evidence. Predictably, Tucker Carlson is in full outrage mode over the Wuhan market suddenly being considered the most likely source of the virus

This seems like a pretty major unsubstantiated allegation to be throwing around, with some pretty major potential political ramifications. China has, of course, been at pains to deny the lab-release allegations, as it has from the beginning. But this volte-face on the part of some American agencies (but not others) has set the whole issue in turmoil once again, and put President Biden in a very difficult position vis-a-vis the already tricky relationship with China. Did they really need to do that? If so, why?


Just as the FBI belatedly settles on its super-contentious (and probably politically-motivated) theory, new hard evidence arrives showing that, guess what, it almost certainly did originated in the (now closed) Huanan Animal Market in Wuhan after all. And the crucial intermediary animal has been narrowed down to the lowly raccoon dog, a popular meat dish in parts of China, apparently.

This is based on extensive DNA analysis from specific parts of the Wuhan market site, which was posted (albeit briefly) on the GISAID genetic database. It is not definitive proof but, despite the unconscionable three year lag in publication, it is considered the "best evidence we will get" by both Chinese and Western investigators. It certainly seems to rule out the Wuhan Institute of Virology, which is over 30 km away from where this DNA was located.

Will this information sway the FBI in their convictions? Almost certainly not, especially as they have now been shown to have egg liberally smeared on their collective fizzogs.

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