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How Intelligent Is COVID Assessment?

Sep 06, 2021
  • Li Zheng

    Assistant Research Processor, China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations

On Aug. 27, the U.S. intelligence community released an assessment on the origin of COVID-19. The declassified version indicates that the investigation remains inconclusive. The assessment once again embroils U.S. intelligence agencies publicly in fraught U.S.-China relations and will severely disrupt global efforts to fend off the next potential outbreak.

It is not surprising that the U.S. intelligence community’s conclusions are largely consistent with previous preliminary assessments. Intelligence agencies do not have the responsibility or capability to investigate the source of a global pandemic. If anything, this investigation was driven purely by political considerations from the outset. Over the course of the 90-day assessment, U.S. intelligence agencies may have been thinking more about how to avoid getting bogged down in a political farce.

The report essentially confirmed that the virus was not genetically engineered and was not developed as a biological weapon. This conclusion is consistent with the prevailing judgment of the U.S. scientific community and presents a rebuttal to the conspiracy theory peddled by Republican populists.

The conclusion is largely favorable to the Biden administration. However, given that the report does not provide solid, credible evidence, Republican critics and skeptics will continue gaining traction. The report does not provide clear-cut answers on the source of the virus or its transmission pathway, issues that are of high public interest and concern. This is an expedient way to navigate the middle ground and avoid rubbing either side the wrong way.

President Joe Biden claims that the purpose of the origin tracing investigation is to avoid the next global pandemic, which sounds like an outright lie. Both the Donald Trump and Biden administrations have been politically motivated to trace the origin of the coronavirus. The Trump administration primarily wanted to use the issue to deflect attention from other domestic issues and free itself of responsibility for the slow responses and inept handling of the outbreak. Its election loss illustrates that the strategy failed, and its philosophy found little support among moderate voters. The Biden administration, for its part, is trying to adjust any definitive judgment on the handling and tracing of the virus to avoid any backlash from opponents. Intelligence agencies were thus put at the forefront to take responsibility on behalf of the Biden administration.

The new wave of Delta variants raging across the U.S. has bolstered Biden’s motivation to conduct a retrospective investigation. Judging from the current infection situation in the U.S., his plan to fight the pandemic is no better than his predecessor’s.

In essence, the virus origin tracing investigation stems from a sense of frustration — by the U.S. government, society and the intelligence community — over the spread. Never before has a pandemic posed such a sustained, far-reaching impact on the United States, which is living in a state of abnormality. The U.S. government appears to have tried every public policy and used every scientific tool available, but thus far has been unable to stop the virus. Instead, a surge of cases has ensued. The frustration is evolving into fear — fear for the U.S. political system and way of life, which are left exposed to such epidemics as they suffer blows with life-or-death consequences. Tracing the alleged source of the virus seems to present the most immediate way for the U.S. to relieve itself.

However, history has shown that while tracing the source will provide some scientific value, it is of limited use to a country in preventing or being prepared for novel infectious diseases. In particular, COVID-19 has evolved into a human-to-human and cross-species virus, and tracing its source is not especially meaningful for ongoing epidemic prevention and control.

Rather than investigating the source, it is more useful to regularly evaluate pandemic prevention policies and measures, identify areas of adequacy or omission in policy responses and raise public awareness to curtail the current pandemic and fend off emerging diseases. This is exactly the aspect the U.S. government has long neglected.

A recent study at Duke University modeled major global infectious diseases over the past 350 years. It predicted a 2 percent possibility that an event similar to COVID-19 would occur every year, implying that a similar pandemic is highly likely to strike within the next 60 years. In addition, globalization and more frequent human-animal interaction means that more lethal pandemics, such as the Spanish flu, are increasingly on the rise — predictably once every 127 years.

This finding underscores the critical importance of preventing the next global pandemic. However, the origin tracing investigation encouraged by the U.S. runs counter to this effort. For starters, it will further reinforce misperceptions about the pandemic within the U.S. and exacerbate the bipartisan divide on the issue. It will increase the political cost of soul-searching on the part of the U.S. government, Congress and society over how to respond to a pandemic.

While many countries are significantly improving their ability to prevent pandemics, or at least prepare for them, the United States may be a weak link.

On the other hand, the so-called U.S. intelligence agency’s origin tracing investigation openly challenges the authority of the World Health Organization, potentially undermining the WHO agenda promoting prevention and preparedness for the next pandemic. The heavily politicized investigation also aggravates the conflict between major powers on infectious disease prevention and control.

Because of the involvement of intelligence agencies, countries will be deeply skeptical of U.S. intentions in promoting global sharing of information and joint surveillance and will become wary that the U.S. is only creating an excuse to steal biological information from others. This will cause countries to become increasingly fragmented in their responses to any new infectious diseases which is the prime reason for the global spread of the current pandemic.

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