China is using "lavish" PPE contributions to try and quash concerns about the origins of Covid-19, the Defence Select Committee chief has warned.
The delay in allowing WHO inspectors into China has allowed space for a “ferocious internal propaganda campaign” suggesting the US military is to blame for planting the virus, say Tobias Ellwood and chemical and biological weapons-expert Hamish de Bretton Gordon.
Chinese handling of the crisis has been characterised by “denial, hesitation, cover up, refusal of outside help and punishment for all who dare speak out,” they told the Telegraph.
“Any international voices of concern have been quashed with lavish and sizable contributions of PPE and more recently vaccination programmes.”
China defended its handling of the coronavirus pandemic on Tuesday, saying the hard lockdown on Wuhan weeks after the virus was detected had "reduced infections and deaths". Foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said the country would "strive to do better".
The Huanan Wholesale Seafood Market, where the first cluster of cases of the coronavirus disease emerged, in Wuhan, China. Jan 15, 2021.
Credit: THOMAS PETER/REUTERS
Having arrived in Wuhan City the WHO team, now held in quarantine, are conducting their investigation by zoom.
They may eventually get to visit the wet market, now closed down, considered by many to be the source of the virus. However, the team is unlikely to be allowed to visit the Chinese Centre for Disease Control (CCDC), a state-run facility located less than a quarter of a mile away.
The CCDC has conducted studies on bats with coronavirus at lower protection levels than the most secure research facilities.
The defence experts say it would be irresponsible to suggest the source of the pandemic was an error in a Chinese military biological weapons programme, “but until it is ruled out the possibility remains very real and is a reality check for the West”.
“Pandemics can no longer be written off as once- in-a-century anomalies.
“Advances in technology have meant many civilian medical research projects have the potential to be used in military applications,” they say.
Biosecurity protocols are not adequate enough to prevent dangerous biological materials accidentally escaping or falling into the hands of malevolent parties.
Mr de Bretton-Gordon says the world must have a monitoring and enforcement system for biological weapons, similar to the existing regime for chemical weapons.
“Preparation for a future pandemic or biological terror event should begin immediately with a review of existing – and woefully unenforceable – international conventions,” he says.
A man wears a face mask while passing the new year landscape in the street on January 15, 2021 in Wuhan, Hubei Province,China. With no recorded cases of community transmissions since May 2020 life for residents is gradually returning to normal.
Credit: Getty Images AsiaPac
The call comes as leading security experts warn of the “weaponisation” of the coronavirus vaccine.
David Gordon of the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) says China will seek to “regain lost momentum through vaccine diplomacy” after the disastrous early handling of the pandemic.
“China can get vaccines out to a lot of the places in the world that otherwise would not be getting them,” he told the Telegraph.
“China views the vaccine as a soft power tool and is unlikely to attach strings directly. Instead they will frame it as part of the competition over systems and use it to distinguish them from the Americans.
“China has competed with the US, Europe, other countries for a long time, but it’s only really in the post Covid period that they began to make more explicitly this notion of the superiority of their system.
“I believe in the next several weeks you will have a substantial announcement by China on a commitment of a big volume of vaccines for export.”
Nigel Gould-Davies, also of the IISS, says the pandemic has intersected with international politics and aggravated some of the fault lines already there.
“Covid is like an alien invasion, it has invaded the human race. No one is better off if the invader wins so there’s a slam dunk case for cooperating against it. Yet, that hasn’t really happened.”
He says the underlying theme of his think-tank’s strategic survey, published last November, is the worrying mismatch between the demand and supply of international cooperation.
“It is the biggest cooperation gap since World War Two.”
Dispute over the origins of the virus are “politically and diplomatically a source of very significant division," he says.