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Covid-19: Wuhan Institute of Virology

Volume 813: debated on Wednesday 30 June 2021


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the possibility that the COVID-19 virus escaped from a laboratory at the Wuhan Institute of Virology.

My Lords, with the increasing threat of zoonotic diseases crossing the animal-human divide, learning how Covid was transmitted to humans and is spread is absolutely crucial to preventing future pandemics. The much-delayed WHO-convened Covid origin study reported on phase 1 of its investigation in March. The report made recommendations for further studies. The Government’s belief is that it is vital that phase 2 of the investigation does not face the same delays and that it is given full access to the data necessary for the next part of its work.

I thank my noble friend for that Answer. Viruses like this have not been found near Wuhan in bats or any other animals. The closest relative to this virus was brought to Wuhan by scientists from 1,000 miles away to a laboratory that had been manipulating SARS-like viruses for 15 years. There it was sequenced in 2017 and 2018 in a biosecurity level 2 laboratory. Most of that information was found out by independent investigators, not volunteered by the Chinese authorities. Will my noble friend unequivocally condemn that lack of transparency and join other nations in calling for a full and independent investigation? Will he clarify who is in charge in the British Government of answering that question?

My Lords, I entirely agree with the sentiments expressed by my noble friend. We are absolutely calling for a timely, transparent and evidence-based phase 2 study, including further investigation in China, as recommended by the experts’ report. We agree with the Independent Panel for Pandemic Preparedness & Response that member states should give the WHO greater powers to investigate outbreaks of pathogens with pandemic potential within member states.

My Lords, I commend the Minister for an excellent reply to the noble Viscount’s Question—a reply obviously informed by the excellent staff at the Department of Health and Social Care. In the light of that, can I gently ask why, as a Minister, did he feel it necessary to have a parliamentary research assistant?

My Lords, I have written to the commissioner for standards in response to that precise question and I should be glad to share that correspondence with the noble Lord.

It is believed that given the slow rate of mutation of Covid viruses, Covid-19 would have taken around 35 years to evolve from its nearest known relative. What has been done to identify any intermediaries in which it may have lived during that period and any knowledge useful for preventing future pandemics that may arise from that knowledge?

I entirely agree with the noble Baroness. It is extremely frustrating that we do not know the steps of evolution that this virus went through. It has come to us completely out of the blue. That leaves us in a vulnerable state when we are preparing for the next pandemic. It is absolutely essential, as any epidemiologist will say, that one knows and understands where the virus came from—whether that is the water pump handle for an outbreak of cholera or a virus from China.

My Lords, the situation could not emphasise more clearly the need for genuine global participation in transparency in surveillance and pathogen sequencing to respond to future pandemics and epidemics. I was pleased to see the progress at the G7 on this but, if the global anti-pandemic action plan is to have any teeth, we will need to ensure that countries such as China contribute trustworthy data to global surveillance in the future. What steps does the Minister envisage to ensure that this happens?

I completely agree with my noble friend. The international health regulations need to be amended in that respect. It was one of the aspects of the pandemic preparedness treaty that was brought to Carbis Bay for the G7 earlier this year. We are working extremely hard, through our G7 chairmanship, to ensure that this relatively obscure but absolutely critical international treaty has the teeth it needs to do the work on genomic sequencing and pathogen identification that needs to be done.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that for a better understanding of the current pandemic and future pandemics, identification of the progenitor genome of SARS-CoV-2 is important? We need more data, despite having sequenced more than 1 million SARS-CoV-2 genomes. The escape of pathogens from labs is not new. Examples are smallpox and anthrax, and also SARS, which escaped from several labs in different countries in 2003. Does the Minister agree that we urgently need to address global regulation of labs that undertake gain of function experiments on pathogens?

My Lords, I agree with the noble Lord’s appeal for more data—but, candidly, as I know he knows, it is not just quantity of data that we need; it is the right data. Where we are struggling is in getting genomic sequencing of new mutations from the furthest reaches of the virus’s spread. We need a systematic programme around the world that shares the sequences of new mutations with academics who can study and assess them. Without such a systematic programme we are flying blind. That is why we are working on the new variant assessment platform and other pandemic preparedness projects.

My Lords, scientists are warning that we are in an era of pandemics, and that viruses more deadly, contagious or resistant to antibodies than Covid-19 could emerge. What steps are the Government taking to prepare themselves and the country for the next potential pandemic, and will the Minister commit to ensuring that future pandemic preparedness plans are independently assessed and reported to Parliament?

My Lords, I pay tribute to the Chief Scientific Adviser, Sir Patrick Vallance, who is leading the pandemic preparedness work. He is doing an enormous amount both on the international treaties through our G7 chairmanship, and on the internal domestic re-envisaging of our healthcare system. We need to invest more in public health, and we also need the data, the diagnostics and the patient behaviours that support really rigorous tracking down of diseases when they arrive. The noble Baroness is entirely right: pandemics will come, sooner rather than later.

Why, within days of becoming Prime Minister in July 2019, did Mr Johnson scrap the Threats, Hazards, Resilience and Contingency Committee, which was set up precisely to ensure that the UK was ready to cope with a pandemic?

My Lords, with the greatest of respect to the noble Lord, I am not sure whether the pandemic that just hit us could have been solved by a committee, however august and impressive. We need a national response, and the national response to this pandemic came from the Prime Minister and the top of Government, and involved the entire nation. For that we are enormously grateful.

My Lords, in an article in the Financial Times in May, Sir Patrick Vallance said that the Prime Minister had asked him, ahead of the G7, to pull together relevant experts to start looking at how a future pandemic could be dealt with more swiftly—and, most importantly, on a global basis. Can the Minister advise us what progress has been made on this?

My Lords, I attended the presentation by Sir Patrick Vallance at the G7 health track in Oxford in June, which was received extremely well, both by Health Ministers from the G7 countries and by the chief executives of the major pharmaceutical companies that are partners in that work. We are using our chairmanship to nudge it along, and it will cover both the pharmaceutical and the demographic elements of pandemic response. This is an example of where Britain is showing leadership in the world to carve out a clear idea of how we can respond to pandemics better in the future.

My Lords, I return to the point made by the noble Viscount earlier. Who in the British Government is in direct touch with the US National Institutes of Health, and especially Professor Jesse Bloom, about the deletion of genomic sequences, which he said had no plausible scientific rationale? If it is proven that the virus came from the Wuhan laboratory and that that fact has been concealed by the Chinese Communist Party, does the Minister agree that Magnitsky-style sanctions against individual officials would be the beginnings of an appropriate response by our Government?

My Lords, specific official engagement with the investigation is done through PHE, and we have a PHE official sitting on the investigation. That is the right way of conducting a scientific dialogue. The DHSC and FCDO also have extremely active interests in this. As for the tone in which the noble Lord talked about how we should approach this challenge, I say that we have to work in partnership with other countries. There is no way in which we can demonise one country or another in this matter. Partnership is the only way ahead. What we can, I hope, bring to the party is a sense of urgency and a sense of focus.