China Needs to Come Clean on Covid-19
China Needs to Come Clean on Covid-19
On Thursday, a team of World Health Organization experts will arrive in China to investigate the origins of Covid-19. The mission, which has been planned and negotiated for nearly a year, almost didn’t happen. As recently as last week, China was still refusing to authorize it. Although the government seems to have had a change of heart, there’s every reason to think it will continue to try to bend the pandemic narrative to fit its perceived political interests. And that’s likely to be a big mistake.
China’s reticence about such probes is longstanding. Nearly two decades ago, the government covered up the SARS outbreak with tragic consequences. Post-SARS reforms intended to ensure adequate transparency and data-sharing in the event of another crisis have proved largely ineffective. In 2018, an outbreak of African swine fever devastated Chinese farmers, created pork shortages and caused deep consumer unease. Rather than be open about the incident, government officials once again suppressed data and coverage of it.
That set an ominous template for Covid. Although authorities in Wuhan knew of a virulent “new pneumonia of unknown cause” in December 2019, they only reported the virus to the WHO on Jan. 3. The day before, authorities had actually sent out a media-censorship directive regarding the outbreak. Their initial goal may simply have been to avoid inciting panic. But as the days and weeks wore on, and the government became wary of global accusations (especially from the US) that it was negligent, it began to manage the media narrative ever more aggressively.
It also sought to control the scientific narrative. According to documents obtained by the Associated Press, China’s State Council issued orders prohibiting the release of data or specimens related to the virus to outside researchers. Publication of research was to be managed “like a game of chess,” with the guidance of propaganda and public-opinion teams. To pull that off, the council centralized review all Covid-19 publications under a single task force. Those who published without permission, one notice said, “will be held accountable.”
If nothing else, those directives have clearly been effective. Chinese-boosted conspiracy theories about the origins of Covid-19 have gained traction, while legitimate research papers have slowed to a trickle and research missions to affected regions have been strictly curtailed. Data collected on potential animal hosts has also been restricted. AP reporters who tried to visit caves thought to be connected to the outbreak were blocked by police.
Now the WHO’s researchers will arrive in China with this clampdown as the backdrop. It’s possible that the authorities will decide to lift some of the restrictions. But more likely, the WHO’s investigations will be tightly controlled and limited, much as they are for Chinese scientists.
That would be a mistake. Determining how the outbreak began, and ensuring the world is ready when the next such virus emerges, is of critical importance to everyone. Even at a more self-interested level, muzzling inquiry is a bad idea. For one thing, it will undermine the government’s ambition to become a global science and technology leader. In recent years, China has done much to fulfill that ambition, including increasing R&D funding and boosting its science and engineering graduates. But meeting those goals will also require retaining and recruiting top global talent — and censorship and politicized research won’t help. In 2018, 79% of Chinese doctoral students in the US intended to remain there after graduation. Even offers of huge salaries have struggled to find takers.
The best thing China could do to change that dynamic would be to ease its control of Covid-19 research and give the country’s talented scientists an opportunity to solve the pandemic’s mysteries. The short-term politics might be uncomfortable, but the benefits to global public health, and China’s reputation, could be historic.