Discourse around the origins of COVID-19 or its source tracing investigation is the terrain of qualified scientists and politics should never be allowed space to interrupt scientific research work.
This is the view of leading international scientists including South Africa’s Prof Salim Abdool Karim, the director of the Centre for the AIDS Program of Research in South Africa (CAPRISA). He was recently in a frank conversation with the Chinese news channel Phoenix TV, shedding scholarly light on COVID-19 origin-tracing and vaccines. The interview took place on July 19, 2021.
It was conducted amid the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) efforts to mobilise scientists around the world to collaborate in joint studies to investigate the actual origins of the coronavirus. WHO has been urged particularly by authorities in China, the first country to carry out joint research with the WHO on COVID-19-origins, to guard against the politicisation of the scientific probe into the origin-tracing of the pandemic that has claimed millions of lives around the world since its outbreak in 2019.
Chinese authorities have also urged the WHO to leave no stone unturned and “seek answers across regions worldwide”. The plea comes in the wake of the USA’s rejection of the 34-member joint WHO-China expert team whose findings into COVID-19 origin-tracing, which looked into humans, animals and the environment, were released in March 2021. This sparked concerns that Washington was politicising the issue over its Geopolitical differences with Beijing. The Biden administration has ordered its intelligence services to conduct their own probe into the COVID-19 origins and submit a report within 90 days.
Prof Karim was asked for his opinion on the joint report by the WHO-China Study Group which looked into the origins of SARS-Cov-2. Prof Karim was all too happy to offer professional insights, especially to the question: Do you agree that international community should look at the origin-tracing matters in a science-based, objective and fair manner, and oppose politicizing the origin-tracing of the virus?
Prof Karim, who has been at the forefront of South Africa’s effort to flatten the curve of Covid-19, offered an elaborate reply: “It’s very important that we identify sources of new viruses because it gives us clues as to what we can expect in the future. For example, we understand that the first SARS-Cov Coronavirus probably came from bats via civets into humans. We need to ensure that we collect the data to understand that for SARS-Cov-2.”
He continued: “We must do that in a scientifically rigorous way. This is not a time for political posturing and finger pointing. This is a time for cool heads to make sure we collect the scientific evidence. And we need all the authorities to cooperate. We need to do so in a transparent way so that all the different possibilities are explored. The evidence is collected and the answers are obtained. It’s in everyone’s interest to get an answer that is scientifically credible,” he said.
Covid-19 origin-tracing is very complicated since no scientific evidence has yet been produced that the pandemic started in China’s Wuhan laboratory. Discourse in Scientific epistemology points to look-alike symptoms that erupted in Europe and the Americas around the same time that Coronavirus was spotted in China as factors of interest.
But objective Scientists have called for open-mindedness in the global origin-tracing work so that a recurrence is avoided in future. They seek “scientific value and not blame or punishment”, according to the US-based CEO of Corvus Health, Kate Tulenko.
Other scholars want the origin-tracing to be “collaborative, international, unbiased, data-driven and transparent”.
Prof Walter Ian Lipkin, professor of Epidemiology at the Columbia University in the US also believes strongly in collaborative work among the experts. “The origin-tracing work needs to shift away from blame – it’s Chinese, or Malaysia or US, whatever, it doesn’t matter. Viruses don’t recognise borders. They are everywhere. We need to ensure that the very best minds in the world focus on this probe,” Prof Lipkin says.
Zoologist Peter Daszak, who was a member of the WHO-China research team, says claims from some quarters in the US that Coronavirus was caused by a spill-over from a laboratory in Wuhan is factually inaccurate. “The evidence says extremely unlikely,” he says, “and that was a unanimous opinion. It’s not worth continuing that pathway of thought.”
He continues: “I do think that is a very significant finding. These are the findings of Scientists who know what they are doing.”
Speaking on the Chinese global news network CGTN’s programme, World Insight, Scientist Dr George Gao Fu, Director of the Chinese Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, said: “As there is no evidence yet on where the virus originated I am calling on everybody to calm down. Let’s work together to figure out where the virus originated. From the Chinese standpoint, we are also eager to find out where the virus came from because this will help us for the future. Let’s leave this (probe) in the hands of scientists.”
Methinks now that the scientists have spoken, politicians need to listen. There is absolutely everything untoward when less-knowledgeable people throw their weight around society’s brightest brains whose primary interest is science-based research and empirical evidence.
Political offices serve – or should serve – a completely different purpose to the work of scientists for every society to prosper. And anyway, politicians are elected for a particular period of office and usually by the time they leave office the electorate want to hear absolutely nothing about them due to their inherent misdemeanours.
So for once, in the light of a pandemic, one hopes that the WHO will be let by powerful politicians particularly in Washington to carry on with their work unhindered. Otherwise, God help us all.