Calls for probe into China’s coronavirus response mount — will Canada take part?

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As health officials around the world work to stem the spread of the novel coronavirus, some in the international community have called for an independent, global investigation into China and the origins of the virus.

On Sunday, Australia‘s foreign minister, Marise Payne, questioned China‘s transparency surrounding the outbreak and demanded an international investigation.

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“The issues around the coronavirus are issues for independent review, and I think that it is important that we do that,” Payne told the country’s ABC television.

U.S. President Donald Trump has also been critical of China’s handling of the outbreak, telling reporters on Saturday that the country should face consequences if it is “knowingly responsible” for the pandemic.

The call for an international investigation came just days after the city of Wuhan, China revised its COVID-19 statistics. On Friday officials in Wuhan raised the official death toll in Wuhan by 50 per cent to 3,869 deaths.

What could an international investigation reveal and should Canada take part?

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What has Canada said?

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Sunday said that while it’s important to find out what happened, Canada’s primary focus right now is the safety of its residents.

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“I think it’s extremely important that we understand exactly what happened and ask really tough questions of all countries involved, including China,” he said. “This is something that we need to pursue.

“But my priority right now and the priority for countries around the world needs to be doing everything we can to keep our people safe and make sure that we have the resources necessary to protect our citizens and get through this.”

Trudeau said that “will always be” his focus.

Investigation could lead to important lessons

Craig Janes, director of the School of Public Health and Health Systems at the University of Waterloo, said the origins of the virus should “definitely be investigated.”

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“There’s no question about that,” he said.

But Janes said if the calls for an international investigation are political, with the goal of assigning blame, that is “less helpful.”

“There will be plenty of time to point fingers after all this is over,” he said.

“I think the real important scientific question here is what happened that caused this, or what were the conditions that allowed this wild virus to jump from bats, through pangolins, into human populations?”

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Janes explained researchers need a “clear understanding of the circumstances that lead to this kind of zoonotic disease transmission.”

But beyond just determining the origin of the virus, Janes said an international investigation could also look into surveillance and how the virus was first detected.

He added this could help health officials develop and implement surveillance systems in areas where viruses are likely to emerge, such as places with large populations, where wildlife habitats have been disturbed or where people are close in contact with animals.

Will Canada get involved?

While there are important lessons to be learned from an investigation, Canada would have to carefully choose its approach.

Senior Fellow at the Macdonald-Laurier institute, Charles Burton, echoed Janes’ remarks, saying he believes there is a “strong basis” for an international investigation into China’s handling of the COVID-19.

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“And also how the [World Health Organization] transmitted information from the government of the People’s Republic of China to the rest of the global community, which then informed their response,” he said.

Burton said, though, that Canada should avoid doing anything “provocative,” adding that the country is sourcing much of its desperately needed personal protective equipment from China.

“We know that the People’s Republic of China engages in trade retaliation for political reasons,” he said.

“So from that point of view, of course, we don’t want to to do anything that will cause the Chinese to block the export to Canada [of] badly-needed medical supplies.”

However, Burton said Canada should not allow this to deter from engaging in a “meaningful and full investigation” of the origins of SARS-CoV-2, the novel coronavirus.

“If we decided that we would not support an international investigation of what went on in Wuhan and how the matter was handled by the government of China, we would in effect be giving in to a form of diplomatic and trade blackmail that would clearly not be in Canada’s a longer term interest in maintaining the international rules-based order,” he said.

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He said holding back from “trying to seek the truth” over concerns it could impact trade or diplomatic relations “just wouldn’t be a correct moral or ethical decision.”

What we know so far about how the outbreak started

COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, was first detected in Wuhan, China in late December. It is believed to have emerged from a “wet market” where both farmed and exotic animals are tied up or stacked in cages.

Some experts believe the virus originated in bats, but the research is ongoing.

More recent evidence suggests the virus could have been circulating in China as early as November 2019, but was not detected until December.

Last week, the U.S. announced it would be investigating the possibility that the virus made its way into the human population due to a leak at a laboratory in Wuhan.

According to U.S. media reports, cables from the U.S. State Department suggest Embassy officials visited a research facility in 2018 which was conducting studies on coronaviruses. After their visit, officials expressed concerns about inadequate safety measures at the facility.

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But according to Dr. Jason Kindrachuk, an assistant professor and Canada Research Chair in emerging viruses at the University of Manitoba, there is currently no scientific evidence to suggest the theory that this novel coronavirus escaped from a lab.

“Indeed, accidental laboratory exposures and escapes have occurred in the past, including the influenza virus and SARS-CoV,” Kindrachuk wrote in an Op-Ed in Forbes.

“However, this week the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff echoed that the weight of evidence continued to suggest natural rather than accidental emergence for SARS-CoV-2.”

Kindrachuk said there has been “no other science supporting the escape theory.”

What has China said?

Meanwhile on Monday, China dismissed Australia’s call for an investigation, saying it was groundless.

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Foreign ministry spokesperson Geng Shuang said Payne’s remarks were “entirely without factual basis,” and said questioning China’s transparency was unfounded and showed a lack of respect for the sacrifices of its people.

Shuang said Beijing has been open and transparent, despite growing skepticism about the accuracy of its official death toll.

“China expresses deep concern and resolute opposition to this,” Shuang told reporters.

In the months since it was first detected, the novel coronavirus has infected more than 2,420,400 people across the globe and has claimed more than 166,200 lives.

— With files from Reuters

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