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Chinese President Xi Jinping finds himself at the center of a controversy stirred up by his U.S. counterpart: Did the novel coronavirus escape from a Wuhan research laboratory, or did it naturally jump into humans from a bat or other animal? (Nikkei Montage/Source photos by Xinhua/AP, AFP/Jiji)
China up close

China knew of lab safety concerns from last year

Beijing had been preparing biosecurity law, but not fast enough

KATSUJI NAKAZAWA, Nikkei senior staff writer | China

TOKYO -- "We're doing very serious investigations," U.S. President Donald Trump said during a briefing earlier this week when asked about China's responsibility in spreading the new coronavirus.

"We are not happy with that whole situation," Trump went on, "because we believe it could have been stopped at the source, it could have been stopped quickly, and it wouldn't have spread all over the world."

The investigations Trump referred to are to determine whether the deadly virus leaked from a Chinese lab in Wuhan, Hubei Province.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has echoed the president. "It's incredibly important," he told the Christian Broadcasting Network on Friday, "that we get to the bottom of what transpired and that the Chinese Communist Party come clean about how this all began."

His words suggest that the party has not come clean so far.

President Donald Trump continues to lambaste China for its early handling of the coronavirus, which has gone on to kill more than 58,900 Americans by official counts.   © Reuters

The prevailing view among academics, including those in the U.S., is that the virus was born naturally and not produced by man in a lab.

Trump himself does not seem to be pushing the "man-made virus" theory but rather questioning the possibility that the virus leaked from a lab in the process of research and storage.

What has drawn attention inside and outside China in the wake of Trump's remarks is that Chinese President Xi Jinping was talking about "biosafety" a little more than two months ago.

During an executive meeting of the party's Central Committee on Feb. 14, Xi urged top leaders to enhance the country's governance capacity for biosafety and to enact "a biosecurity law" at the earliest possible date.

This was shortly after China locked down Wuhan on Jan. 23 and the nation was in turmoil. Suspicions that the virus escaped from a research facility sparked a firestorm of controversy among Chinese internet users.

The controversy partly arose because authorities initially covered up information about the outbreak. This was exemplified by the tragic case of Li Wenliang, an ophthalmologist and coronavirus whistleblower in Wuhan who was muzzled before he himself succumbed to the virus.

The controversy also gained traction because bats native to the provinces of Yunnan and Zhejiang -- and that do not live in Wuhan -- were suspected to be the virus's carrier. Perhaps the source of the virus was not the wet market in Wuhan, as was widely explained, but samples kept at the lab, people began to rumor.

Amid the chaos, it was understandable that people made a mental connection between Xi's strong biosafety order and the virus leak theory. Their hunch, however, was off the mark.

"At first glance, Xi's February order to enact a biosecurity law seems to have come up abruptly," a Chinese political source explained. "That's a big misunderstanding. China has been preparing for it carefully for quite a long time, conscious of how the country was perceived overseas."

The Wuhan Institute of Virology could hold military secrets that China wants to keep under wraps. (Source photo by AFP/Jiji and Kyodo)

There are two virus research-related facilities in Wuhan. One is the Wuhan Institute of Virology, which is affiliated with the Chinese Academy of Sciences, and the other is the Wuhan Center for Disease Prevention and Control.

The Wuhan Center for Disease Prevention and Control is close to the Huanan seafood market, which initially drew attention as the suspected source of the outbreak.

But it is the Wuhan Institute of Virology, which is located a certain distance from the market, that has now come under the spotlight, partly due to Trump's remarks. It is a biosafety level 4, or BSL-4, lab, meaning it incorporates the highest level of security, and went online there in 2018.

The facility's pathogen preservation center is said to be Asia's largest. The center is said to be storing about 1,500 strains, including the coronavirus that caused the severe acute respiratory syndrome epidemic almost 20 years ago.

The BSL-4 lab's construction came out of long-standing cooperative ties between China and France. But France was also part of the international community that pointed out a flaw in the framework for ensuring the safety of virus research in China.

China wanted to catch up with advanced countries in biotech research as soon as possible. To that end, it needed to establish related laws on par with those in countries like France, the U.S. and Germany.

Former Minister of Commerce Gao Hucheng in 2015. Gao in October presented a draft biosafety law that shows Beijing has long been working to improve its responses to emergencies like that presented by the novel coronavirus.   © Reuters

On Oct. 21 last year, well before the first infection acknowledged by the Chinese government, the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress, China's parliament, received its first report detailing the draft biosecurity law.

Former Commerce Minister Gao Hucheng was in charge of the report. He cited eight points as priority areas, and they are worth looking at because they give the impression that China had all but predicted the viral outbreak. The points are:

1) The prevention and control of major emerging infectious diseases, animal and plant epidemics.

2) Research, development and application of biotechnology.

3) Ensuring biosecurity in laboratories.

4) Ensuring the security of China's biological resources and human genetic resources.

5) Preventing the invasion of alien species and protect biodiversity.

6) Dealing with microbial drug resistance.

7) Preventing bioterrorism attacks.

8) Defending against the threat of biological weapons.

The carefully curated draft law is watertight, but the measures were not introduced in time for China to prevent the Wuhan outbreak. Instead, information was initially covered up and China's first steps were delayed.

Among Gao's eight points, ensuring biosecurity in laboratories is particularly eye-catching in light of Trump's remarks.

In one episode that illustrates the importance China has attached to the establishment of these related laws, an exam held at Chinese high schools at the end of 2019 included a question about biotechnology.

The question introduced problems, including the lack of penalties for accidents involving biotechnology, and asked students what the correct sequence should be in establishing necessary laws.

In China, the party and government's political intentions tend to be immediately reflected in school curricula.

The discussions over biosafety were happening in light of another case that had put China under international scrutiny. At the end of last year, He Jiankui, a former associate professor at Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen, Guangdong Province, was sentenced to three years in prison and fined 3 million yuan (about $424,000).

He gained notoriety a year earlier when he announced that he had created the world's first CRISPR-edited babies, having used the genome-editing technology on human embryos so the twin baby girls they eventually grew into would not be able to contract HIV.

An HIV-infected man and his wife were the parents.

In He's sentencing, the judge ruled that the scientist "deliberately violated national regulations" and "disturbed the order of medical management."

China is a large country with a vast number of laboratories, maybe too vast for the party to keep a close watch on, as appears to have been the case with He's CRISPR babies.

Luc Montagnier, an 87-year-old French virologist who won the 2008 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his discovery of HIV, made a recent splash as he mused about a possible connection between HIV and the novel coronavirus.

The virus, Montagnier said, is artificial and might have been created by someone trying to come up with an AIDS vaccine.

Montagnier's view has won little support in the academic world, which also gives little credence to the virus escaping from a lab where it was being studied.

But tight control is the crucial ingredient to ensure biosafety.

The leak theory has also become a bargaining chip. China strongly denies any leak and cites a World Health Organization statement that says there is no evidence the virus was engineered in a lab.

If this is the case, some observers may think China has only to disclose information and allow a team of international investigators, including scientists from the WHO and the U.S., into the Wuhan Institute of Virology.

But China's hesitance might have to do with the last two points that Gao, the former commerce minister, made in his draft bill: coming up with defense systems against bioterrorism, and defending against the threat of biological weapons.

These points enter the realm of military secrets, and China is pushing forward with the law on a "national security" standpoint.

The biosecurity law is expected to be submitted to and enacted during the delayed annual session of the National People's Congress, now set to open on May 22.

In light of COVID-19, some elements have been reportedly added to the draft law, including information sharing and emergency response.

Perhaps the law should take into account additional lessons, such as those learned from the tragic case of ophthalmologist Li Wenliang, and make sure whistle blowers are not punished.

Katsuji Nakazawa is a Tokyo-based senior staff writer and editorial writer at Nikkei. He has spent seven years in China as a correspondent and later as China bureau chief. He is the 2014 recipient of the Vaughn-Ueda International Journalist prize for international reporting.

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