THE contrast could not have been greater.
In Britain, many of us were tucked up in bed as Sadiq Khan’s pathetic, politicised firework display played to an empty Thames embankment.
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Yet hours earlier, the streets of Wuhan were packed with revellers holding balloons as they saw in 2021. The bars were doing a roaring trade and the nightclubs were heaving.
It is a year ago this week that Li Wenliang, an ophthalmologist working in Wuhan Central Hospital, shared on his social media account suspicions about a new SARS-like disease which had been linked to a seafood market.
His reward for raising the alarm was to be accused of making “false statements”.
We know what happened next: What we now call Covid-19 grew into a global pandemic which has so far claimed the lives of a million and a half people, including that of Li himself, who died in February aged 33.
But a year on, you could be forgiven for thinking that the virus had passed China by.
Life in Wuhan, as in other Chinese cities, is back to normal. The country has — officially — recorded 4,634 deaths, three for every million inhabitants.
Britain, by contrast, has so far had 75,431 deaths, 1,160 for every million inhabitants.
While the UK economy is nine per cent smaller than it was a year ago, the Chinese economy managed to grow by 1.7 per cent over the course of the year — in spite of travel bans and severe lockdowns in the early part of the year.
China has managed to escape the worst of the economic fallout, but there is one thing it most not be allowed to escape: An explanation of just how Covid-19 came to exist.
Somewhere in China lies the key to the whole disaster. But it is an issue on which China itself is showing little curiosity.
At first, scientists seemed fairly sure that the virus was born at Wuhan’s “wet” market — where dogs, cats and exotic animals are slaughtered in front of customers. Such markets, common in China, are perfect breeding grounds for viruses to jump from one species to another.
When the genes of the SARS-CoV-2 virus — which causes Covid-19 — were sequenced, scientists quickly noticed its similarity to viruses which affect bats, which are sold at Wuhan’s wet market.
A theory emerged whereby a bat passed the virus to another creature, a pangolin, where the virus mutated before being passed to humans.
But while it can not be ruled out, there is a problem with this theory – all the samples recovered from the market are of a virus which was already adapted to humans.
There is a darker possibility: That far from being a freak of nature, the virus was man-made, and escaped from a laboratory in what would be just about the most devastating and expensive accident in history.
It sounds like a far-fetched science fiction novel. That is perhaps one reason why many scientists initially were reluctant to countenance the idea: They didn’t want to give ideas to conspiracy theorists.
But steadily, evidence has begun to point at a man-made source. Over the weekend, the US government’s National Security Adviser, Matthew Pottinger, said that he now believes a laboratory leak is the “most credible source” for the pandemic.
Besides its wet market, Wuhan is noted for its Institute of Virology, a Chinese Porton Down where scientists study novel pathogens, and which has a special line in research into coronaviruses.
Covid-19, and SARS, which briefly threatened to develop into a pandemic in 2003, are both coronaviruses.
The institute is known to have worked with a SARS-like virus which was found to have infected six men clearing bat droppings from a cave in Yunnan province in 2012. Three died.
Moreover, the institute is known to have created viruses artificially as part of its work, because in 2017 it published a paper on the subject.
Two months ago, Rossana Segreto, a virologist at the University of Innsbruck, Austria, analysed the SARS-CoV-2 virus and found it to have an unusual feature on its “spike protein” which hinted at possible man-made origin.
She described such a possibility as “not a baseless conspiracy which is to be condemned”.
It would be far from the first time that a laboratory accident had caused an outbreak of disease.
The world’s last victim of smallpox, medical photo-grapher Janet Parker, died after contracting the virus in a Birmingham lab in 1978.
Two US diplomats who visited the Wuhan Institute of Virology in 2018 reportedly relayed their concerns about biosecurity.
None of this is proof that SARS-CoV-2 is a man-made virus, nor that it originated in work at the Wuhan Institute of Virology. But given the location and the severity of the consequences, you would think it would be one of the first places to be investigated by a team from the World Health Organisation.
It finally visits China next week to try to get to the bottom of the Covid-19 pandemic despite declaring a year ago that it would investigate the virus.
On January 4, 2020 it tweeted: “China has reported to WHO a cluster of pneumonia cases — with no deaths — in Wuhan, Hubei Province Flag of China. Investigations are underway to identify the cause of this illness.”
Yet bizarrely, WHO has announced its team will not be investigating the Wuhan Institute of Virology — a decision which has the whiff of politics about it.
Covid-19 has caused, and continues to cause, untold damage to human lives and to the global economy. The least China can do now is open the Wuhan institute to investigators from around the world.
It should not be allowed to get away with what is beginning to look like a very serious cover-up.
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