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How Can We Hold China To Account For Coronavirus Without Starting WW III?

The United States’ Secretary of State Mike Pompeo declared in a recent interview that there is "enormous evidence" that the coronavirus came from a laboratory at the Wuhan Institute of Virology.

When I first read rumors to this effect on social media in January, I immediately dismissed them as outright nonsense. Now that Pompeo is publicly floating this idea, unsurprisingly summoning comparisons to the faulty intelligence that precipitated the disastrous Iraq War, there is concern that such claims could be walking us unknowingly into World War III.

How can we avoid such a scenario?

Millions have been infected with this virus, hundreds of thousands have died, and life for so many around the world has been changed forever by the loss of loved ones, loss of careers, and loss of everything we once took for granted. There needs to be accountability, but this needs to be pursued with the utmost care.

We cannot latch onto provocative theories that lack evidence, potentially leading to disastrous conflict between the world’s two superpowers. At the same time, we cannot risk a repeat of this disaster, and thus cannot dismiss any plausible theory out of hand. The gravity of the situation and the uncertainty around its origins demand an independent and transparent inquiry that pursues all possible explanations, including Pompeo’s claims, and answers these questions once and for all, thereby minimizing the potential for global conflict.

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First, let’s clarify what these allegations do and do not mean. Pompeo does not seem to be arguing that COVID-19 is a bio-weapon that was genetically engineered in a laboratory. As a statement from the United States’ intelligence community this weekend clarified, COVID-19 is not man made. Pompeo is also not arguing that the Chinese government knowingly unleashed this virus on its population and the world.

Rather, Pompeo appears to be proposing that COVID-19 was one of the viruses studied at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, and that it leaked into the population by accident. This is not beyond the realm of plausibility. Recently leaked 2018 State Department cables show that US officials who visited the Wuhan Institute of Virology were sufficiently concerned about risky research and insufficient safety measures to raise their reservations with Washington.

Now that we have clarified what these allegations actually mean, why do they still seem so incendiary? After all, if the virus happened to leak from the lab by mistake, it would be considerably easier to prevent a recurrence than if the virus came from China’s wild animal trade. International cooperation to enhance security measures or close down dangerous labs is a lot easier than closing down the so-called wet market industry.

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Yet implicit within this theory is the possibility that the Chinese government has engaged in a proactive cover-up for months about a virus that has now infected millions and destroyed the global economy. Such behavior seems beyond comprehension.

This does not, however, mean that it is not true.

In my years of engaging with China research, I have encountered numerous situations in which the behavior of the government seemed simply too horrid to be real. When I heard that the People’s Republic of China had built a network of 'concentration camps' in Xinjiang to hold minorities there in confinement indefinitely, I was initially shocked into disbelief.

The Chinese government has of course vehemently denied these accusations, but these camps and the horrors inflicted upon human beings within them, forcing people to renounce their religious beliefs and express their gratitude to Chairman Xi Jinping, have been verified beyond a doubt.

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When considering evidence-based accusations against the Chinese government, one cannot discount such accusations simply because they seem too horrid to believe.

While the United States’ history of using faulty intelligence to begin a war rightly provokes concern, the Chinese government’s track record of denying and covering up state behavior that is simply beyond comprehension must also give us considerable pause. These two patterns, meeting amid a global pandemic and the resulting collapse of the global economy, are making conflict between these two powers considerably more likely than ever. This would be a new calamity on top of the disaster that is already unfolding which humanity simply cannot afford.

The only path out of the emerging cycle of disconcerting accusations and secretive stonewalling is an independent and transparent inquiry into the origins of the coronavirus as recently proposed by Australia. This inquiry must be conducted by independent experts, who must have access to all data and facilities that they require to reach their conclusions, including the Wuhan Institute of Virology.

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Considering that essentially every nation in the world has been hit by this virus, and that every nation thus has a vested interest in understanding how this happened and how to prevent it from happening again, there should be a resilient and expansive global alliance in support of such a proposal. It would also be safe to assume that any nation attempting to block such an inquiry through economic threats and conspiracy theories may have something to hide.

If conducted properly, such an inquiry would make clear that this virus cannot be used for baseless accusations to stoke tensions, while also making clear to all parties that the truth of this matter is far too pressing to cover up.

Importantly, a transparent inquiry may also help to prevent this tragedy from happening again. We owe such an independent and transparent investigation to all those who have lost their lives from this virus in recent months -- and it may be the only method we have to ensure that no further lives are lost in another wave of tragedy.

Featured Image: Getty