The writer, MP for Tonbridge, Edenbridge and Malling, is chair of the UK foreign affairs committee
The first atomic explosion revealed a power that transformed our world. Institutions that had until then provided weapons checks were suddenly out of date and new ones were needed to protect us from the destroyer of worlds. The International Atomic Energy Agency was established in 1957 to regulate and promote the peaceful use of this awesome new power.
Covid-19 has exposed a similar shared risk — and the gaps in our defences. We need new global public health powers that can access sites around the world, perhaps modelled on the nuclear sector.
From the start of the pandemic, the World Health Organization struggled. China did not inform the organisation about a worrying new virus until December 31 2019, weeks or even months after it began spreading, and then the WHO was powerless to send its own team of scientists to investigate. Even when the threat became clearer, the jurisdiction arguably dealing best with the crisis — Taiwan — was kept out of the discussions helping other nations to prepare because China blocked it from attending even as an observer.
Allowing the Chinese government to cover up information and deny access to international scientists helped the spread of a virus that has killed millions and cost trillions. It reveals not just the danger of autocratic rule to a country’s citizens, but the risk that the culture of fear and concealment poses to us all.
The chance of another pandemic is far from zero. The industrialisation of animal husbandry and human intrusion into areas replete with wild animals raises the risk of viruses jumping species. The more viruses we encounter, the greater the risk that a more virulent pathogen will take hold, leading to an even more deadly pandemic.
That’s why we need to study how diseases cross between species. What are the genetic changes that create dangerous mutations, and what can be done to stop them? We also need to know whether the research is being done safely. Is every experiment necessary? Are the risks worth it?
We will probably never get answers for Wuhan. Despite the extraordinary coincidence of a coronavirus outbreak a couple of provinces away from bat caves that were investigated for their connection to the 2002 Sars outbreak, and in the home city of a virology institute researching coronaviruses, attempts to track the origins of Sars-Cov-2 have been hampered by Beijing.
Covid should teach us to be more cautious. The Wuhan Institute of Virology was conducting “gain of function” research, where pathogens are manipulated to discover how they work. After incidents in the US, including one in which dozens of workers at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention were potentially exposed to anthrax, we need to be careful. Some scientists even recommend a ban on such research.
But that would store up trouble for future generations. It’s true that genetic experimentation on pathogens raises risks, but it’s also how we discover what makes a virus more transmissible or virulent. Mutations emerge naturally; we need laboratories to study how and why they occur. Shutting labs in countries with the highest standards may be counterproductive, as research would only move to more cavalier jurisdictions, increasing the likelihood of a leak. And, as we now know well, borders are no defence against viral spread.
There are valuable lessons from the atomic industry. Scrutiny, peer pressure and the sharing of safety standards are the best protections we have. As the foreign affairs committee recommends in a report, we could give the WHO the power to launch their own investigations, the right of access and the right to report, as the IAEA has today.
In pandemic terms, Sars-Cov-2 could have been worse. But the alarm could not have been louder. We need greater transparency if we are to prevent the local outbreaks of the future from becoming something deadlier.
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