For over a year, the world has been preoccupied with fighting COVID-19. The tide of that battle has now turned. And it is now time for the free world to turn its attention to what caused this pandemic: the malicious and destabilizing behavior of the Chinese Communist Party.
As new evidence emerged over the last few weeks, the once pooh-poohed theory that the COVID outbreak may have initiated in a Chinese government lab is now being treated seriously. It is vital that we determine the truth of the virus’s origin and spread. This knowledge can help the world prepare to prevent the next pandemic.
Questions about the lab aside, it has long been known that virulent, communicable diseases often arise from zoonotic transmission–when humans catch diseases from animals. The problem is most acute where wild animals, domesticated herds and flocks, and humans are densely packed together. Parts of China are infamous for being “hot spots” for these types of outbreaks.
Five years before the COVID outbreak, a team of Chinese scientists wrote in the International Journal of Infectious Diseases): “Contributing factors that continue to affect emerging and re-emerging zoonoses in China, include social and environmental factors and microbial evolution, such as population growth, urbanization, deforestation, livestock production, food safety, climate change, and pathogen mutation.”
The world must understand how deadly, communicable diseases emerge out of China—because plagues out of China are likely again. The world must ensure it has global health surveillance in place to identify, prevent and mitigate future outbreaks. Understanding how COVID happened is vital if we are to plug the holes and gaps against future threats.
Clearly, however, the world cannot rely on China’s cooperation in the effort. Beijing has consistently sought to hide the truth, spread misinformation, and shift the blame elsewhere. There is zero chance China will ever voluntarily cooperate with an international investigation, let alone to agree to reparations. Rather, they will likely destroy evidence and aggressively counter efforts to hold the regime accountable.
The U.S. needs to lead a concerted and sustained intelligence effort to investigate the origins of COVID. Merely asking for a review of current intelligence is not adequate. In fact, this could be interpreted as a weak and indecisive response that avoids taking responsibility for getting to the bottom of the matter. Here are three steps that must be taken.
Step #1. Mount a sustained, full-scale intelligence investigation, using every open source and covert method available. Not only is this the most likely way to get at the truth, it might serve to deter Beijing from repeating its bad behavior. The regime should know the free world will spare no effort to uncover malfeasance from the Chinese Communist Party.
That said, the world does not need definitive evidence of COVID’s origins to hold China accountable for the global pandemic. China failed to abide by World Health Organization (WHO) regulations that require member nations to promptly and fully report information about communicable disease outbreaks. Those regulations were put in place because the regime failed to appropriately report the 2003 SARS outbreak.
The Chinese government compounded the problem created by its reporting failure by then permitting international travel to and from affected regions. It did this knowing that thousands were likely infected and that the disease was highly communicable and could be deadly to vulnerable populations.
To deal with an irresponsible China, the world needs a global health surveillance system that does not rely on China’s cooperation. Both the Trump and Biden administrations have failed to get WHO reforms that will make that organization effective.
Step #2. America will have to lead in creating alternative solutions. That is absolutely doable. For example, the U.S. helped create a framework for dealing with the AIDS epidemic in Africa after the WHO completely failed to lead a credible response.
Further, the most significant and important way to punish the Chinese regime for its many misdeeds is to start by standing up for our vital interests—that will inflict more damage, humiliation, and punishment on the Chinese Communist Party than demanding payback for COVID. China will run amok if the free world doesn’t smack them down when the regime threatens the freedom, prosperity, and security of others. As an example, to let China go unpunished for its intentional and negligent actions in releasing a pandemic on the world ought to be unthinkable.
Step #3. Don’t let China’s malicious and destabilizing actions go unchallenged. Responses don’t have to be “symmetrical” (like expecting reparations for COVID), but they ought to be proportional and they ought to get China’s attention.
For instance, going forward with the Olympic Games in China should be out of the question. The U.S. should lead a global effort to delay and move the games. If that fails, Washington should lead a diplomatic and commercial boycott of the games.
Sadly, we are doing none of this. The Biden administration seems to be looking for ways not to have to confront China. And while Congress is considering major legislation on China, it seems more calculated to deliver pork to the folks at home than to make a serious effort to counter China.
COVID-19 has claimed nearly 600,000 American lives, yet our leaders don’t seem ready to take the hard steps necessary to keep China from afflicting the world with yet another epidemic sometime in the future. That needs to change.
A Heritage Foundation vice president, James Jay Carafano directs the think tank’s research in matters of national security and foreign relations.