CAVAN HOGUE. Science, not politics, must drive an independent and comprehensive Coronavirus inquiry

The whole question of lessons to be learned to help prepare for future pandemics is caught up in international politics and it will be hard for science to defeat politics. We need to examine who handled it well and who not, but this will point the finger at some countries which prefer to do the finger pointing.

The European initiative which seems to have swallowed the narrower Australian one is a step in the right direction, but will China and the USA cooperate? We must wait and see but it is a rocky road ahead. The abysmal Australian media coverage will not be much help.

The Australian COVID initiative looks like being incorporated into a wider European plan for a broad look at the whole pandemic question. This makes more sense. It will take the heat off China which would be good for Australia but not for President Donald Trump.

An inquiry into where this pandemic began is limited in scope and is unlikely to tell us anything we don’t already know. It began in Wuhan and spread from there to other parts of China and then to other countries. Scientists are examining where and how it was transmitted to humans. The prime suspect is bats to a wet market in Wuhan and thence to humans but any definitive answer is going to come from science, not politics. There are mutating viruses in all manner of beasts any of which could move into humans. The Hendra virus, for example, went from bats to horses and then to some humans. Scientists at Macquarie University have found viruses in fish from the Sydney Fish Market which could possibly mutate into humans and suggested blood testing for people working in wet markets like this.

So we don’t know where the next pandemic will come from. If we want to learn lessons that will help combat future pandemics, such an inquiry will not help us unless it deals with the science of how to identify a potential mutation into humans at an early stage. We do not know where any future pandemic will originate or how. If you look at historical cases you find a range of sources including fleas on rats in Europe, the Spanish flu, the bubonic plague, Ebola in Africa and Biblical plagues sent by God to punish sinners! This is just the latest in a host of pandemics with a variety of origins.

Another major area to study is the connection between health and the economy. How do you handle unemployment? What about a second wave ? What about the effect on globalisation?

What we really need to learn is how to stop it spreading once identified. How did it get out of China? How can you stop it spreading from one country to another and within national borders? How can you avoid the kinds of disasters we now see in the USA, UK, Italy and Spain and emerging in Russia?

A political problem with this is that President Trump will not want an inquiry which might criticise his mishandling of the virus which has led to the US having the highest death rate in the world. The Australian initiative fits well into his election strategy of diverting attention from his mistakes. Any truly independent inquiry would be highly critical of the US, while one focused on the origin would be about China which also deserves criticism for its initial failure. At present, both countries are busy blaming the other – and they are both right!

The Chinese have made it clear that the European initiative is different from the Australian and being not political is more acceptable. When the Australian media will wake up to this remains to be seen. It is only Australian media that highlight Australia’s role while others list it as one of the cosponsors of a European motion.

The text of the resolution reads: :

OP9.10: Initiate, at the earliest appropriate moment, and in consultation with Member States, a stepwise process of impartial, independent and comprehensive evaluation, including using existing mechanisms, as appropriate, to review experience gained and lessons learnt from the WHO-coordinated international health response to COVID-19, including (i) the effectiveness of the mechanisms at WHO’s disposal; (ii) the functioning of the IHR and the status of implementation of the relevant recommendations of the previous IHR Review Committees; (iii) WHO’s contribution to United Nations-wide efforts; and (iv) the actions of WHO and their timelines pertaining to the COVID-19 pandemic, and make recommendations to improve global pandemic prevention, preparedness, and response capacity, including through strengthening, as appropriate, WHO’s Health Emergencies Programme;
OP9.11 Report to the 74th World Health Assembly, through the 148th session of the Executive Board, on the implementation of this resolution.

What happens at WHO will be instructive.

Clearly some countries have handled it well and others not. There have been democracies and autocracies in both camps so a simple good guys and bad guys claim is not the answer. Cover ups occur in all systems of government. So we need to identify why the successful countries were successful and where the others went wrong. It is easy to identify success and failure because we have figures showing the infection rates and the death rates, but why is harder. A major factor seems to be how quickly and effectively you take defensive measures and how well prepared a country is with the necessary equipment. You also need a cooperative population. However, politics will raise its ugly head. Who wants to be rated as one of the bad guys?

The search for a vaccine is part of the story but this is not as simple as it sounds. Scientists in many countries are working on it and there is some degree of cooperation but not enough. Trump claims he is cooperating with a range of countries but the US has accused China of hacking its vaccine programs and they probably have. But why should they need to? If everyone shares research won’t we make quicker progress? Of course we will but in countries where much of this kind of research is carried out by pharmaceutical companies who aim to make a profit, money is more important. If they don’t keep their research secret they go broke. This is another example of how the market economy has not been a positive factor.

The Australian media has got its knickers in a knot over the sins of China and how right the Scott Morrison initiative is. Both Government and Opposition have praised it. What looks like Australia being subsumed into the European plan is presented as the reverse. We will need to see how this plays out over the next few days and probably weeks, but however it goes it will be a highly political exercise. It has got caught up in the US–China conflict which will underlie the whole process. So far neither China nor the US has signed up to the draft before the WHO Assembly. The US proposal that Taiwan be admitted has angered China.

Can science and human welfare defeat narrow political interests? Tune in for the next exciting episode.

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Cavan Hogue is a former diplomat who has worked in Asia, Europe and the Americas as well as at the UN. He also worked at ANU and Macquarie universities.

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