Covid, Chinese lab 'leaks', and the risks of playing with nature

Traditional Indian wisdom teaches us that we are not separate from nature, that all forms of life are connected and inseparable from the rhythm of the planet – the air, the mountains, the forests, the seas and the sun. If this thinking is allowed to take root again, sustainability is already achieved.

Lekha Rattanani Mar 05, 2023
Representational Photo

The Director of the United States Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), Christopher Wray, has now come out to say that the Covid-19 pandemic “most likely” started after a leak in a virus research laboratory in China’s city of Wuhan, the place where the pandemic began. To quote Christopher Wray: “The FBI has for quite some time now assessed that the origins of the pandemic are most likely a potential lab incident in Wuhan … here you are talking about a potential leak from a Chinese government-controlled lab.” The position, which came first on Fox News in the United States, makes the FBI the second US government agency weighing toward the theory of a laboratory leak. 

Earlier, the US Department of Energy had said that the pandemic was triggered by a lab leak but it qualified the position as “low confidence”. We now have the clearest indication so far that the US has concluded that the pandemic was not a case of a virus that organically evolved, but is probably one of an unintended mishap caused by human intervention. In other words, these findings say that human experimentation in a laboratory brought us a staggering death toll of 6.86 million and infection of a total of 758 million, according to the official count on Covid-19 by the World Health Organisation (WHO).

Needless to say, the finding (or claim) of a lab leak made by the US has been disputed by China. After the FBI director’s statement, the Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson, as quoted by the media, noted: “Based on the poor track record of fraud and deception of the U.S. intelligence community, the conclusions they draw have no credibility whatsoever... we urge the U.S. side to respect science and facts.” In focus is the Wuhan Institute of Virology, which though a controlled Chinese government facility, has not been operating in isolation. The institute has collaborated with US facilities, researchers and has had global scientists working there as well. 

For example, a Bloomberg report quoted an Australian researcher Danielle Anderson who worked at the Wuhan Institute around the time Covid-19 began. She said she was impressed with the institute’s maximum biocontainment lab. “The concrete, bunker-style building has the highest biosafety designation, and requires air, water and waste to be filtered and sterilised before it leaves the facility. There were strict protocols and requirements aimed at containing the pathogens being studied,” Anderson said. She has been quoted by Bloomberg in a report of June 2021. This also indicates that if the Wuhan laboratory caused the “lab incident” then the US was not completely unaware of the kind of work that was going on there. 

Dysfunctional relationship with nature

While the US versus China tug-of-war goes on what must not be missed by humanity is the potential of science and technology to bring death and destruction on a global scale with a mere accident. If we accept the theory that this was a case of an accident, it is not just the technology in the specific experimentation or bio standards that are implicated here. Along with it is the technology that powers globalisation, the infrastructure that facilitates global deals, the science that reduces distances and makes the story of modernity itself that can be implicated as the cause of the pandemic. The faster we go, the faster the pandemic spreads, reducing response time and increasing death numbers. 

Novel viruses arising from science is one part of the downside of technology, the other end is the dysfunctional relationship with nature. To quote the World Economic Forum, which said this in April 2020, much before the origins of the COVID-19 virus were to be established, “Sixty per cent of infectious diseases originate from animals, and 70 per cent of emerging infectious diseases originate from wildlife. AIDS, for example, came from chimpanzees, and SARS is thought to have been transmitted from an animal still unknown to this day. We have lost 60 per cent of all wildlife in the last 50 years, while the number of new infectious diseases has quadrupled in the last 60 years. It is no coincidence that the destruction of ecosystems has coincided with a sharp increase in such diseases.”   

This brings us to the idea of sustainable living that goes beyond the materiality that is measured and tested by businesses and governments today - one that is becoming an industry by itself. It highlights the fundamental problem that humanity faces with modern-day development. A problem that has brought more violence, disruption, extraction and excavation at a huge human cost. This is often not measured when the cost is paid by the poor or by those who do not have a voice in the system. It challenges the idea of value-free scientific research that breeds a sense of arrogance, a sense of conquest. 

Tradtional Indian wisdom

Scientific research apparently brings solutions for now but quite obviously causes new problems for future generations. It tells us that humility is an important value, and that limits must not be crossed just because it is possible to cross them. It says that scientific research and endeavour must be grounded with a larger purpose of doing good for humanity, not dangerous experimentation that carries the potential for mass destruction. Needless to say, we require science and technology – but not all of it is good for humanity. That much is clear to every youngster who now knows that a simple “like” button on Facebook can bring a smile or cause distress and depression when there are not enough “likes”.

What is the way out of this trap – of wanting more solutions but not all kinds of solutions?

The answer is best served by understanding what traditional Indian wisdom has taught us – this may well be wisdom that India is losing fast on its own journey to a wannabe modernity. Traditional Indian wisdom teaches us that we are not separate from nature, that all forms of life are connected and inseparable from the rhythm of the planet – the air, the mountains, the forests, the seas and the sun. If this thinking is allowed to take root again, sustainability is already achieved. The measurements of carbon footprints and goals of carbon neutrality, while required, can become insignificant.

(The writer is the Managing Editor of The Billion Press. Views are personal. By special arrangment with The Billion Press) 

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