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Opinion Columnists 26 Apr 2020 Does China have a ca ...
Manish Tewari is a lawyer and a former Union minister. The views expressed are personal. Twitter handle @manishtewari

Does China have a case to answer on Covid-19?

Published Apr 26, 2020, 7:21 pm IST
Updated Apr 26, 2020, 7:26 pm IST
There is a considerable body of scientific opinion that believes that SARS-COV-2 actually escaped from the Wuhan institute of Virology
This photo taken on April 24, 2020, shows medical personnel taking swab samples of a man for nucleic acid testing as part of COVID-19 pandemic measures, at a health services centre in Suifenhe, in China's northeastern Heilongjiang province. AFP Photo
 This photo taken on April 24, 2020, shows medical personnel taking swab samples of a man for nucleic acid testing as part of COVID-19 pandemic measures, at a health services centre in Suifenhe, in China's northeastern Heilongjiang province. AFP Photo

Does China have a case to answer on the Covid-19 pandemic? At the time of writing the outbreak has claimed over 2,02,400 lives. What are the bare facts as they stand? The first case was reported in Wuhan on November 17, 2019. China reported this hitherto-unnamed disease that was causing fatalities to the World Health Organisation on December 31, 2019. At that point in time the number of confirmed cases stood at 266. In one day by January 1, 2020, it had jumped to 381. The first question is, where did the virus originate?

There is no clear evidence but two theories. Some scientists believe the virus originated in bats before being passed to humans through an intermediary species — possibly the endangered pangolin, whose scales are illegally trafficked in China for traditional medicine. These exotic animals are sold in the wet markets of China. The facility that came under the scanner is called the Hunan Sea food wholesale market in Wuhan where ostensibly the rites of passage from the bat or the pangolin to the human happened.


However, a study by a group of Chinese scientists published in the Lancet in January 2020 revealed that the first Covid-19 patient had no connection to Wuhan’s wet animal market, and neither did 13 of the first 41 confirmed cases.

There is another facility in Wuhan that is also on the radar of the international scientific community. That establishment is known as the Wuhan Institute of Virology. It is China’s first laboratory with a Biosafety level 4 status. This is the highest level of biosafety designed for work with the deadly and easily transmittable class of pathogens known as Pathogen level-4. This institute was established in 2003 when the SARS Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome virus broke out in China. 


Its mandate is research, prevention and control of newly discovered diseases in China. It is also a virus seed storage centre and WHO reference laboratory. Its remit includes improving defence and resilience towards biological wars/terrorist attacks and maintaining national biosecurity. Mark the words biological wars. 

There is a considerable body of scientific opinion that believes that SARS-COV-2 actually escaped from the Wuhan institute of Virology by default because of lax safety protocols where it was being either studied or genetically engineered as a bio-weapon. In either case, should China not give full access to scientists, investigators and the international media to the Wuhan wet markets, Institute of Virology and the city of Wuhan in general to try and establish the origin of the virus rather than stonewalling an enquiry? For it is in China’s interest also to disabuse the world about the bio-weapon hypothesis through an impartial probe. 


The second question is, did the Chinese government misinform, underplay or deliberately withhold critical information with regard to the emerging situation in Wuhan from the World Health Organisation that could have resulted in many lives getting saved around the world? A number of Chinese doctors who had raised the initial alarm about the gravity of the new illness including Ai Fen and Li Wenliang; the latter had sent out a warning over the WeChat messaging app advising fellow med school grads to wear protective clothing to avoid infection after several patients from a local seafood market exhibited symptoms similar to SARS have either disappeared or died in mysterious circumstances. Do the disappearance and deaths of these and other whistleblower doctors not deserve to be probed through an international investigation?


The third question is, was a cover-up by the Chinese responsible for the bizarre behavior displayed by WHO in the early days of the crisis? As late as the 9th and 11th of January 2020, WHO put out bizarre tweets either downplaying the situation or trying to undercut global travel advisories that were anticipated. On January 9, 2020, the official WHO Twitter handle had this to say at 11.58 pm: “Novel coronavirus emerges periodically as we have seen. SARS emerged in 2002 and MERS emerged in 2012. Several known coronaviruses are currently circulating in animals that have not impacted humans.”


On January 11, 2020, they followed it up with a travel advisory as follows: “WHO does not recommend any specific health measures for travellers to and from Wuhan China. It is generally considered that entry screening offers little benefit, while requiring considerable resources.” Even entry screening of passengers from Wuhan or China were discouraged. 

Is it that WHO was misled by the Chinese or was its leadership helmed by the rather colourful Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus arm-twisted not to inform the world about the true facts so that the Chinese could shirk responsibility at best and cover up at worst about the origin, nature and scale of the pandemic?  


Finally, why did China misuse their rotating presidency for the month of March of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) to scuttle a discussion on Covid-19 requested by Estonia calling for full transparency about the outbreak. This subversion by the China on specious technical grounds was brazenly executed at a point in time when death toll mounted globally and country after country across the globe was forced to lock down? The UNSC finally met for the first time to discuss Covid-19 pandemic on April 9, 2020, only after the Dominican Republic took over the rotating presidency. 


That is why all these issues and a lot more have spurred calls for an international investigation into the role of China, WHO and other entities into the Covid-19 catastrophe. 

The International Criminal Court (ICC) has a remit to investigate and prosecute crimes against humanity even against non-state parties. It has jurisdiction under the jurisprudential principles of proprio moto. Crimes against humanity are defined as serious violations committed as part of a large-scale attack on any civilian population. The facts as they prima-facie stand so far do warrant such an enquiry under the Rome Statute, for today all of humanity is under attack.