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How virus research has become a point of tension for the U.S. and China

The Trump administration has emphasized the possibility that the novel coronavirus was accidentally released by scientists at a Chinese lab. While that accusation remains unproven, China’s oversight of such scientific research has come under scrutiny in the past, and now, an area in which the U.S. and China previously collaborated has grown fraught with tension. Nick Schifrin reports.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    That party Congress in Beijing where the Hong Kong proposal was made had been postponed from March, as China battled the coronavirus.

    The Trump administration has highlighted the possibility that COVID-19 was accidentally released from a Chinese lab by Chinese scientists. That accusation is unproven.

    But, as Nick Schifrin reports, questions of science have challenged U.S.-China collaboration and given way to increased confrontation.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    It feels like a descent into the heart of darkness, Chinese virus hunters in Wuhan looking for coronaviruses in bats in a video posted as the pandemic began.

    Scientist Tian Junhua acknowledges in narration, there are serious risks.

  • Tian Junhua (through translator):

    Because when you find the viruses, you are also most easily exposed to the viruses.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Tian says he hunts for viruses to create vaccines, before viruses can hunt people. And the promotional video ends with a brag, how many viruses Chinese scientists have discovered.

    It may seem shocking, but it's normal work for virus hunters the world over. And Chinese scientists have been trained by the West.

  • Peter Daszak:

    We're working in caves across Southern China to found out where the risk is highest and who is at most risk of this new disease.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Peter Daszak is the head of New York-based EcoHealth Alliance, which received Bush, Obama, and Trump administration funding to research in China.

    "PBS NewsHour" filmed him five years ago with our partner Global Health Frontiers, as he tried to improve defenses to viruses that jump from animals to humans, like SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.

  • Peter Daszak:

    And what we're trying to do is to say, what's the next one coming along, and can we stop it before it evolves into a very lethal human pathogen?

  • Nick Schifrin:

    To that work, Tian works in a Wuhan lab and received one of the first live samples of SARS-CoV-2 on December 26.

    He and Chinese colleagues wrote one of the first papers about a COVID-19 patient. In fact, in the last weeks of December, teams of Chinese scientists collected dozens of SARS-CoV-2 strains to share online. And Chinese scientists submitted the first full genome after just two weeks of work.

    That's incredibly fast, a sign of how far Chinese scientists have come, says Gregory Gray, an infectious disease epidemiologist who's worked with Chinese scientists since 2011.

  • Gregory Gray:

    The majority of scientists I work with are excellent and often very much Western-trained and Western-thinking. They value truth.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    But the Chinese government put a brake on that truth-telling.

    On January 1, Wuhan Institute of Virology's director general, Yanyi Wang, messaged her colleagues, saying the National Health Commission told her the lab's COVID-19 data shall not be published on social media and shall not be disclosed to the media.

    And on January 3, the commission sent this document, never posted online, but saved by researchers, telling labs to destroy COVID-19 samples or send them to the depository institutions designated by the state.

    Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has repeatedly called that a cover-up.

  • Secretary Mike Pompeo:

    The party chose to destroy live virus samples, instead of sharing them or asking us to help secure them.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Last Friday, the Chinese government admitted to the destruction, but said it was for public safety.

  • Liu Dengfeng (through translator):

    We released a guideline on January 3, aiming to prevent biohazards of labs and the occurrence of secondary disasters caused by unknown virus.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Those secondary disasters have occurred before. The World Health Organization says, in 2004, the virus that caused the previous year's SARS epidemic accidentally got out of a Beijing lab, where it was being analyzed by scientists, causing small, brief outbreaks.

    Scientists believe a 1977 influenza epidemic spread after a Russian lab accident. And leaks have even happened in the U.S.

  • Woman:

    We learned today that about 75 government scientists may have been exposed to live anthrax bacteria.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    The Trump administration has repeatedly raised the possibility of a lab accident sparking the COVID-19 pandemic.

  • Secretary Mike Pompeo:

    There's enormous evidence that's that where this began.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    National Security Adviser Robert O'Brien added a crucial caveat.

  • Robert O’Brien:

    Look, there's certainly the potential it came from the laboratory.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Some scientists we interviewed agree the potential exists and worry about lab security.

  • Tim Trevan:

    There's still this culture of compliance, rather than a culture of safety.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Tim Trevan is a biological safety expert. He questions whether the Chinese government would allow scientists to point out mistakes.

  • Tim Trevan:

    If you have a society where it's extremely hierarchical, and people don't question their superiors, and, if, on top of that, you have a political system that disappears whistle-blowers, then it's a very difficult starting point to have a learning organization where everyone feels safe to speak up when they see things which aren't going right.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    But Trevan and other scientists say there is no evidence of a lab leak. And over the last few decades, the Chinese have dramatically improved their facilities.

  • Gregory Gray:

    There's a lot of scrutiny now. There's video cameras monitoring who does what. Often, they have rules like we do, where a junior person will have to be partnered with senior personnel.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    But the Chinese government has admitted it needs to strengthen biosecurity.

  • Woman:

    Chinese President Xi Jinping says epidemic prevention and control systems must be strengthened.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    In February, Xi Jinping announced new biosafety rules. The pro-Communist Party tabloid Global Times wrote that labs faced chronic inadequate management issues, though denied this had anything to do with COVID-19.

    But at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, at the center of many U.S. accusations, Deputy Director Yuan Zhiming wrote a paper about China's lab security last year that admits: "Most laboratories lack specialized biosafety managers and engineers. This makes it difficult to identify and mitigate potential safety hazards."

    The U.S. argues, the Chinese government must allow Chinese scientists to voice those concerns as a matter of life and death, as Deputy National Security Adviser Matt Pottinger put it, quoting a famous Chinese writer in mandarin.

    "Those with the fortitude to seek and speak the truth in China today may take comfort in something Lu Xun wrote: Lies written in ink can never disguise facts written in blood."

    For Xi Jinping, today's meeting is designed to project and ensure national unity. He has centralized authority. And that's affected even the scientists.

  • Gregory Gray:

    Some of our best collaborators come from Beijing and from one of the leading military epidemiological institutions there.

    And in the last few years, there's been more scrutiny with respect to me going, visiting them in their facilities. Their availability has been somewhat reduced. And so I attribute it to sort of a consolidation of power of Xi Jinping.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    But it goes both ways. The Trump administration ended Peter Daszak's grant to work with Chinese scientists.

    Collaboration is eroding, as the two countries increase confrontation.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Nick Schifrin.

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