Treating viruses like atomic bombs would help prevent pandemics

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The writer, deputy of Tonbridge, Edenbridge and Malling, is Chairman of the UK Foreign Affairs Committee

The first atomic explosion revealed a power that transformed our world. The institutions that until then had offered arms controls were suddenly obsolete and new ones were needed to protect us from harm. destroyer of worlds. The International Atomic Energy Agency was established in 1957 to regulate and promote the peaceful use of this awesome new power.

Covid-19 has exposed a similar shared risk – and shortcomings in our defenses. We need new global public health powers that can access sites anywhere in the world, perhaps modeled on the nuclear industry.

From the start of the pandemic, the World Health Organization struggled. China did not notify the organization of a disturbing new virus until December 31, 2019, weeks or even months after it began to spread, and then the WHO was powerless to send its own team of scientists to investigate. Even when the threat became clearer, arguably the jurisdiction that best dealt with the crisis – Taiwan – was left out of discussions helping other countries prepare because China prevented him from attending even as an observer.

Allowing the Chinese government to withhold information and deny access to international scientists has helped spread a virus that has killed millions and cost billions of dollars. It not only reveals the danger of an autocratic regime for the citizens of a country, but the risk that the culture of fear and cover-up poses for all of us.

The risk of a new pandemic is far from zero. The industrialization of animal husbandry and human intrusion into areas populated by wild animals increase the risk of viruses skipping species. The more viruses we encounter, the greater the risk of a more virulent pathogen setting in, leading to an even more deadly pandemic.

That is why we need to study how diseases intersect between species. What are the genetic changes that create dangerous mutations, and what can be done to stop them? We also need to know if the search is being done safely. Is all experience necessary? Are the risks worth it?

We will probably never get answers for Wuhan. Despite the extraordinary coincidence of a coronavirus epidemic in a few provinces of bat caves that have been studied for their link with the Sars epidemic in 2002, and in the hometown of a virology institute researching coronavirus, attempts to trace the origins of Sars-Cov-2 have been hampered by Beijing.

The Covid should teach us to be more careful. The Wuhan Institute of Virology was conducting research on ‘gain of function’, where pathogens are manipulated to find out how they work. After incidents in the United States, including one in which dozens of workers at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention were potentially exposed to anthrax, we need to be careful. Some scientists even recommend banning such research.

But that would create problems for future generations. It is true that genetic experiments on pathogens run risks, but it is also how we discover what makes a virus more transmissible or virulent. Mutations emerge naturally; we need laboratories to study how and why they happen. Closing laboratories in countries with the highest standards may be counterproductive, as research would only move to more cavalier jurisdictions, increasing the likelihood of a leak. And, as we well know by now, borders are no defense against viral spread.

There are valuable lessons from the atomic industry. Control, peer pressure and the sharing of safety standards are the best protections we have. As recommended by the Foreign Affairs Committee in a report, we could donate to who the power to initiate their own investigations, the right of access and the right to report, as the IAEA has today.

In terms of the pandemic, Sars-Cov-2 could have been worse. But the alarm couldn’t have been louder. We need more transparency if we are to prevent the local epidemics of the future from becoming something more deadly.


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