‘The world at risk’: Official blasts China's virus ‘obsession’

Nick Whigham
·Assistant News Editor
·3-min read

A former senior official in the Trump administration has taken aim at China for what he says is an "obsession" with viruses and biotechnology, saying it's putting the world at risk.

Former US Secretary of State during Donald Trump's presidency, Mike Pompeo, has rehashed suggestions that Chinese scientists played a role in the origins of the coronavirus pandemic while accusing the government of overseeing lax biosafety standards.

"The Chinese Communist Party is obsessed with viruses," he wrote in a Wall Street Journal op-ed Tuesday (local time).

"Its army of scientists claim to have discovered almost 2000 new viruses in a little over a decade. It took the past 200 years for the rest of the world to discover that many."

Technicians processing Covid-19 coronavirus tests at a laboratory in Tianjin, China. Source: Getty
Technicians processing Covid-19 coronavirus tests at a laboratory in Tianjin, China. Source: Getty

Pompeo, who also served as the director of the CIA under Trump, led the administration's tough stance on China in recent years and repeatedly pushed claims that the Covid-19 outbreak was linked to a virology lab in Wuhan – a theory that has been widely dismissed by investigators and most experts, as well as US intelligence agencies.

Nonetheless, Pompeo argues that China is putting the world at risk with its biosafety standards and aversion to global transparency.

"More troubling is the party’s negligence on biosafety. The costs and the risk to world health are enormous," he said, adding: "This situation can’t continue."

In rehashing coronavirus claims, Pompeo cited a former director of a lab at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, Yuan Zhiming, who said such virus pursuits could lead to "a disaster".

"With increasing numbers of high-level biosafety laboratories constructed in China, it is urgent to establish and implement standardised management measures for biosafety laboratories," he and other researchers wrote in a 2019 paper.

In 2004 the SARS virus was believed to have escaped from a Beijing lab. Source: Getty
In 2004 the SARS virus was believed to have escaped from a Beijing lab. Source: Getty

Virus breaches 'not that rare'

Andreas Fulda, a senior fellow at the University of Nottingham Asia Research Institute, said "it’s actually not that rare" for viruses to escape from the lab.

"Accidents in bio labs have happened all over the world, including in China in 2004," he tweeted earlier this week.

In 2004, SARS escaped from a lab in Beijing on two separate occasions, the World Health Organisation concluded.

"We suspect two people, a 26-year-old female postgraduate student and a 31-year-old male postdoc, were both infected, apparently in two separate incidents," WHO spokesperson Bob Dietz said at the time.

A WHO envoy of investigators who travelled to China have largely dismissed the theory that Covid-19 is linked to a lab near a Wuhan wet market where an early cluster broke out.

This week Australian microbiologist Dominic Dwyer, who was a part of the WHO team, said it was "extremely unlikely" the virus escaped from a lab.

"The market in Wuhan, in the end, was more of an amplifying event rather than necessarily a true ground zero. So we need to look elsewhere for the viral origins," he argued.

The Chinese embassy in Australia was quick to promote the conclusions of Prof Dwyer.

"China welcomes objective and rational voices. The entire world needs objective and rational voices," it said in a statement published on social media Tuesday.

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