October 28, 2022 - 1:00pm

While the fully-vaxxed nations of the West have decided to get on with life, China still lives under Xi Jinping’s draconian zero-Covid policy. 

The latest Chinese city to go back into lockdown is Wuhan, especially noteworthy since this is where the pandemic started, likely around this time of year, in 2019.

But how did it start? Three years on we still don’t have a definitive answer, but the question won’t go away. Yesterday, a US Senate report was published addressing the issue. Though it doesn’t come to a final verdict, it was clearly written to cast doubt on the idea that the virus had a purely natural origin. 

Indeed, the report states that, on the evidence available, “it appears reasonable to conclude that the Covid-19 pandemic was, more likely than not, the result of a research-related incident.” The authors hedge their bets, but not by much: “New information, made publicly available and independently verifiable, could change this assessment. However, the hypothesis of a natural zoonotic origin no longer deserves the benefit of the doubt, or the presumption of accuracy.” 

While we’re on the subject of accuracy, it should be made clear that this particular Senate report is the work of the “Minority Oversight Staff” of the “Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labour and Pensions”. In other words, it is a Republican report. 

This partisan aspect may explain why coverage in the media hasn’t been universal. For instance, it’s been written-up by the Daily Mail, (“bombshell Senate report”), but not — as yet — by the BBC. Meanwhile the New York Times coverage is distinctly sceptical in tone: “in relying largely on existing public evidence, rather than new or classified information, the report came as something of a letdown even to those who supported its conclusions.”

Of course, there’s a reason why new information is so hard to come by: the Chinese authorities have suppressed it. In his forward to the report, Senator Richard Burr notes the “lack of transparency and collaboration from government and public health officials in the People’s Republic of China.”

However, China’s control of the evidence on the ground (and in the lab) is precisely why the natural origin hypothesis is now so widely doubted. Not only are the Chinese authorities in a position to cover up evidence that might support the lab-leak hypothesis; they also have the means and motive to provide proof (if it exists) for the official explanation. And yet they haven’t. 

Three years on from the start of the pandemic, it is this continued absence that is the most important fact available to us. As the Senate report sets out on pages 11 and 12, no intermediate host species has been found — which, by definition, would be required for a natural zoonotic origin. Further, there’s still no evidence of Covid having entered the human population anywhere except Wuhan — which just happens to be a global centre for research into respiratory viruses. 

The people trying to dismiss the Senate report are missing another point, too: it is a clear signal that the Republicans aren’t going to let this lie. And that matters, because the party could take control of Congress in the upcoming mid-term elections and then the White House in 2024.

As the report reminds us, “over one million Americans have died from COVID-19 and tens of millions have died from this virus worldwide.” Those facts make this an awfully big issue for a blame-game between superpowers. 

Peter Franklin is Associate Editor of UnHerd. He was previously a policy advisor and speechwriter on environmental and social issues.