There is no doubt that COVID-19 has served as yet another battleground for the US and China to wage a diplomatic war between each other, with both the origin of the coronavirus as well as vaccine diplomacy presenting as major sources of conflict between the two nations over the past year.
In the early months of the pandemic, suspicion was cast on the Wuhan Institute of Virology as a possible ground zero for the coronavirus. Claims quickly arose that the virus was engineered specifically by scientists at the institute, although this was quickly disproven by the global scientific community. Another suggestion was that the virus had infected a scientist at the institute, who upon leaving the facility allowed the virus to escape and infect others; however, this has recently been deemed “extremely unlikely” by investigators from the World Health Organization (WHO).
In response, in early 2020, Chinese “wolf warrior” diplomats made waves by suggesting that the virus may have been intentionally brought to Wuhan by American soldiers who had participated in the city’s 2019 Military Games. Later, when Washington began to urge that international investigators be allowed into Wuhan to investigate the source of the virus, Chinese diplomats shot back by suggesting that the US should allow WHO investigators access to the US army biological research lab at Fort Detrick. With the origins of the coronavirus still unknown, tensions and diplomatic conflicts between the two countries are likely to continue escalating.
A clouded WHO investigation
The circumstances surrounding the WHO’s investigation into the origins has opened additional channels for uncertainty. In early January 2021, when the WHO first attempted to send an investigation team to visit China, Beijing failed to approve investigators’ visas. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying stated after the fact that this was due to a “misunderstanding” rather than “a visa issue,” and continued to say that the specific details of the WHO visit were still being worked out. Beijing later permitted the investigation team of fourteen WHO scientists to visit Wuhan and carry out the investigation.
However, when the WHO team announced the results of their investigation, some of their findings struck the global community as particularly controversial. For instance, the team lent credibility to Chinese reports that frozen food shipments may have contributed to the spread of the virus within China, a theory that many scientists outside of China have viewed as unlikely. Specifically, the WHO team stated that the virus can exist on frozen food packing for a long time; yet, it still remains uncertain if such a scenario can actually lead to human transmission. The investigative team also visited the Wuhan Institute of Virology, and concluded that it was highly unlikely that a lab accident had caused the spread of the virus. Furthermore, the team found that the virus was indeed already circulating in Wuhan before it reached the Huanan Seafood Market, a wet market originally identified as a possible place of origin for animal-to-human transmission of the coronavirus, and was unable to determine which animal species was responsible for the infection.
In response, the US Department of State has publicly stated that they will not accept the outcome of the WHO report until the results can be independently verified, citing concerns over the degree of independence through which the investigation was conducted. Washington also voiced its doubts that Chinese officials were fully transparent about the data that they provided to the WHO team.
Given the active battlefield on which the investigative team was conducting its research, the report was fated to be broiled in controversy. WHO team member Peter Ben Embarek recently stated in an interview that “…the politics were there constantly. We were not naïve, and I was not naïve about the political environment in which we tried to operate.” Another member of the WHO team, Dominic Dwyer, stated that China refused to provide data with regard to early coronavirus cases in the country, an release of information that he deemed as “standard practice for an outbreak investigation” – data that US national security adviser Jake Sullivan has since called upon Beijing to release.
Not only were its findings called into question, but the autonomy of the WHO itself was challenged by the Trump administration. Washington suggested that the WHO had been excessively influenced by China and was too relaxed in its response toward the coronavirus, ultimately announcing that the US would leave the organization. While the Biden administration has since reversed the decision to withdraw from the WHO, continued suspicion over findings presented in the WHO report paints a vivid picture that the organization will serve as a continued source of tension between Beijing and Washington for years to come.
A dark road forward for US-China health cooperation
In addition to ongoing diplomatic disputes over the origin of the coronavirus, the two countries are also actively engaged in a battle over vaccine diplomacy.
Chinese media and certain Chinese public health officials publicly questioned the safety of Pfizer’s vaccine earlier this year, pointing to the deaths of 23 elderly people in Norway who had received the vaccine as evidence that it is unsafe – a claim that was quickly overturned by the WHO. Chinese media also asserted that mRNA vaccines (like the Pfizer vaccine) that teach our cells how to make virus-fighting proteins are too new to have a proven track record of safety and are thus unsafe. Pouring more oil onto the flames of US-China relations are continued aggressions by Chinese “wolf warriors” that extol China’s success in containing the virus and sneer at the US for failing to do the same.
In the US, experts have also been questioning the legitimacy of Chinese-produced vaccines. For example, in July 2020, top US expert on infectious diseases Dr. Anthony Fauci stated, “I do hope that the Chinese…are actually testing the vaccine before they are administering it to anyone.” The statement came after reports leaked that Beijing had already begun distributing and authorizing the use of the vaccination before clinical trial results were released. It remains to be seen whether the US will publicly recognize the efficacy Chinese vaccines.
As the WHO has yet to release its formal investigative report, it remains to be seen how a US independent review of the findings will influence US-China relations. Given the current state of the bilateral relationship, a betting man would place his chips on a highly politicized release with a low likelihood for near-term cooperation between the two powers on pandemic-related issues.