Security Correspondent Dr Dave Sloggett continues FIRE magazine’s quest to explore how the UK can become more resilient to unforeseen and catastrophic events, arguing that we must discover the source of Covid-19
In the ongoing fight against the ravages of the Covid-19 virus, the government often seems to be struggling with the problem Odysseus had in the Homeric voyages of Greek mythology: which route to chart between Scylla and Charybdis? Do you open the economy and face the possibility of new cases of the virus overloading the NHS, or do you keep everyone at home and rapidly see the economy falter?
As we seemingly oscillate between these two positions, neither of which has a great outcome, a central question about the whole Covid-19 experience remains: where did the virus originate? After all, how can we expect to finally try and see an end game of this crisis without fully understanding how it started?
Why, some might ask, is it vital that we discover the truth about the circumstances in which the virus emerged to kill just under four million people internationally and to leave so many ravaged by its long-term consequences? The answer is a simple one. If we do not bottom out how the virus originated, it is difficult to imagine how we prepare for the next one, which will inevitably happen.
For all members of the emergency services in the frontline of helping protect people, the answer to this question is vital. It is the basis of how we try and develop the kind of resilient society that we in the Fire Knowledge Network have been advocating for some time.
Challenge to Future Proofing
This is a topic the Centre for Long-Term Resilience at The University of Oxford has addressed in their report, Future Proof (www.longtermresilience.org/futureproof). In their apocalyptic analysis, the authors go beyond the mere pandemic, to one that has been “engineered” by a state or non-state-based actor.
If we are to follow the reasoning carefully outlined by the authors, we can find some further evidence that supports one answer to this conundrum over the origins of Covid-19 – that it came from the Wuhan laboratory now at the centre of a major investigation by the US. After all, this virus appears from many reports to have been engineered to match the structures of alveoli in human lungs? Perhaps, as many are now suggesting, this was a biological weapon that escaped? Could this be the first example of what the authors of Future Proof were describing?
Even this intense effort by the US is almost doomed to fail before it really starts. China has made it an all but impossible task by destroying records and refusing to cooperate. Ironically, the easiest way for them to remove suspicion that they covered up the origins of the virus is to provide transparency about what went on in the laboratory in Wuhan. Sadly, that does not seem to be a course of action the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) seems to be about to take. Transparency is not a word that appears in their lexicon.
However, the effort by the Americans and their immediate allies must be welcomed. At last, it appears the truth is beginning to emerge from the labyrinth of lies and obfuscation which have been used to cover up the answer to this simple question.
A year ago, the prevailing zeitgeist was that the virus had emerged in food markets in Wuhan, China. It was explained that people eating bats, who are known to be reservoirs of all sorts of diseases that can transfer to humans, were to blame.
This is a story that appears superficially credible until you probe it with a simple fact. Have Chinese people not been eating these so-called delicacies for years without it resulting in a pandemic? Surely if consumption of bats makes humans sick why have not several forms of pandemic already emerged from the food markets? Even China, with all its Orwellian controls, could not supress the emergence of several pandemics over a narrow window of time.
Finally, and not before time, people are tuning once again to the possibility that the Covid-19 virus was leaked from a laboratory in Wuhan, just a few hundred metres away from the live animal markets that were initially blamed for the outbreak. It is a point now challenged even by the World Health Organization (WHO), a body whose performance to date has been lamentable. Their report, published in January, failed to conclusively link the outbreak to the Wuhan live animal markets.
While even The Times describes evidence of the emergence of the virus from the facility are at best “circumstantial”, the words written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and attributed to his creation of Sherlock Holmes ring true. In the book, The Sign of the Four (first published in 1890), Holmes notes in a conversation with the ever-loyal Dr Watson that “when you have eliminated the impossible, what remains, however improbable, must be the truth”.
Biohazard Security Flaws
There is another even more troubling question that surrounds the issue of the Chinese cover up. They have a track record of doing this in the past. In 2004 evidence available from simple searches of the internet shows that two separate incidents occurred in 2004, in a laboratory in Beijing that saw a deadly virus from the Sudden Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) strain enter the human population. Other events are also easy to discover, such as a suspicious leak of the H1N1 influenza epidemic in the late 1970s.
These so-called lapses appear to be the result of systemic failures in the procedures adopted by the CCP to manage such facilities. They appear to regard themselves as being above international accepted norms on safety. In China there is one rule to which everyone submits, the CCP knows best. This is not the basis on which the international community can operate. An international effort, bringing together the best brains in a transparent and open environment is what is required, where they are given access to all the data, not selected highlights of what is politically convenient.
But other developments are occurring that may soon place the experiences with Covid-19 as only the portend of things to come. Today at least 59 Biosafety Level 4 (BSL-4) laboratories are either planned or under construction around the world, according to the Financial Times. Astonishingly, three-quarters of the laboratories are in urban centres. Their locations span the globe including countries where adherence to the strict protocols that need to be put in place to ensure their safe operation must be scrutinised.
Whilst many countries in Africa need facilities to combat other deadly diseases such as Ebola and Marburg virus, their ability to staff and security check those working inside are limited. It is a simple fact that as BSL-4 laboratories proliferate so does the probability that other new pandemics will emerge on the world stage, either by planning (such as conducted by a terrorist organisation) or by a simple lack of adherence to standards. Checking such facilities is a matter of concern for us all. It is valid to ask ‘quis custodiet ipsos custodes’ (‘who guards the guardians’ of what might be the source of the next pandemic?). From its track record it appears that the WHO is incapable of performing this role.
It is not as if there have not been leaks before. The report in the Financial Times noted that less than a quarter of countries operating a BSL-4 laboratory have what are termed ‘high’ levels of biosecurity. The US and the UK are notable exceptions. A third, which includes China, have medium levels of security while 41 per cent have ‘low’ levels of biosecurity. Even in the relatively secure US, on 13 occasions one of 67 toxins were lost and accidentally released on 219 occasions. This required more than 1,000 people to undergo medical assessments.
China’s plans to build more than 30 BSL-3 and another five BSL-4 laboratories do not inspire confidence. It is more than troubling to think they can run these facilities with the same obvious disregard for international biosecurity standards that has been adopted in Wuhan, where according to reports in the press the personal protection equipment was appropriate for a level 2 facility.
Clearly China is cashing cheques on the world’s health than cannot be sustained. If China feels that by obfuscation and using contemporary approaches to the generation of fake news surrounding a new leak, how can the world ever be certain or plan how to deal with the next pandemic?
For the UK and its resilience another important consideration arises. If, as the recent government risk-assessment report suggests, a CBRN-based terror attack on the UK is likely by 2030, how might it be differentiated from a leak from a laboratory with weak security? While profiling using advanced forensic techniques might offer some capability, the need to get real data on what is stored in a facility is the final hurdle that needs to be overcome. For those in the UK emergency services, who will once again be in the forefront of dealing with such a situation, the outlook does not look good.
Without cooperation, and more to the point, transparency and a willingness to cooperate, it is difficult to know how any progress might be made in trying to mitigate what comes next. Given the inevitability of a new pandemic, all that can be conclusively said is that China’s refusal to properly cooperate in the investigation of the source does not create the kind of international resilience that should emerge from the current pandemic.
Inevitably, when it strikes it will be an every-person for themselves strategy that will emerge. Sadly, that is the one for which we must prepare. It is fair to say that at this moment, as we seek to recover from the societal damage inflicted by Covid-19, this is a concern that few will address. Once again it is obvious that contemporary political leaders have no ability to think or plan strategically. If they did the matter of enforcing an international set of standards on research facilities, such as those in Wuhan, would be a matter of some urgency.