China must increase its oversight of laboratories handling dangerous pathogens, President Xi Jinping has told the Communist Party leadership.
Biosecurity is an important part of national security and a force that “affects and can even reshape the world”, Xi told the Politburo, the party’s top policymaking body on Wednesday, according to state news agency Xinhua.
It was the Politburo’s first ever group study session specifically focused on biosecurity, highlighting the importance the Chinese leadership has attached to the issue since the onset of the pandemic.
According to Xinhua: “Xi Jinping emphasised that, at present, traditional biosecurity issues and new biosecurity risks are superimposed on each other, and biological threats from overseas and domestic biological risks are intertwined.”
Xi’s warning comes at a time when China and the US are engaged in a war of words over the origins of Covid-19
Some members of Donald Trump’s administration repeatedly accused China of engineering or leaking the coronavirus from a lab in Wuhan, where the first Covid-19 outbreak was recorded.
China hit back against such accusations with one foreign ministry spokesman, Zhao Lijian, promoting theories that the US had introduced the virus to the central Chinese city
While the Biden administration has reined back the mudslinging, it has repeatedly called for China to share more data from the early stages of the outbreak in Wuhan – something that has been described by Beijing as politicising a scientific question.
The Wuhan Institute of Virology, which studied coronaviruses, has also repeatedly been forced to deny that the virus accidentally leaked from its labs
On Wednesday, Xi said “it is necessary to promote origin tracing of the novel coronavirus based on scientific principles and scientific rules,” although he made no mention of the controversial lab-leak theory.
He also called for faster early warning systems of emerging infectious diseases as well as better international collaboration on biosafety.
“It is necessary to quickly detect and recognise newly emerged infectious diseases and outbreaks,” he said.
“It is necessary to actively participate in global biosafety governance, join hands with the international community in responding to increasingly severe biosafety challenges, and strengthen bilateral and multilateral cooperation and exchanges in the formulation of biosafety policies, risk assessment, emergency response, information sharing and capacity building.”
The Chinese leader also called for a proactive approach to pandemic prevention that “blocks the transmission path of zoonotic diseases from the front end of the source”, echoing calls from several prominent virologists who believe that Covid-19 was ultimately caused by the increasingly narrow barrier between wildlife and human societies.
China has overhauled its biosecurity norms and regulations since Xi called for the swift introduction of new biosecurity legislation in February 2020, weeks after the outbreak in Wuhan was first detected.
New legislation was passed last October and Chinese research institutes have been researching shortcomings in the management of biosecurity risks.
The peer-reviewed article, published in Biosafety and Health, a journal sponsored by the Chinese Medical Association, concluded that “biosafety awareness in CDC laboratory staff involved in pathogen detection is low, especially the awareness regarding risk assessment and control.
Hubei province’s CDC, which is based in Wuhan, did not feature in the study, a possible sign of the sensitivities surrounding the topic.
Before the pandemic, several laboratories in the city were conducting research on bat coronaviruses, which are from the same family as Sars-CoV-2, the virus that causes Covid-19.
China has rejected World Health Organization proposals to revisit the laboratories but Xi’s comments suggest the leadership is alert to the risks from laboratory accidents.
Xi emphasised that the oversight of laboratories handling pathogens needed to be strengthened – including experimental samples, animals and waste – and said the ethical review process must be rigorously enforced.
The Chinese leader ended his speech by reminding party and government officials that improving the country’s biosecurity was a “long and arduous task”.
Politburo study sessions provide “a platform for the general secretary [Xi] and broader leadership to convey preferences and priorities to lower-level officials and the general Chinese public,” according to a July article written by Brian Hart, an associate fellow with the China Power Project at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies.