Conversations on the Future

Rise above blame games to common challenge, urges top zoonotic diseases expert Wang Linfa

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WASHINGTON - The global community needs to treat new virus outbreaks as a common challenge without allowing blame and politics to hamper the response, says one of the world's foremost experts on zoonotic diseases, bat immunology and pathogen discovery, Professor Wang Linfa.

"Covid-19 taught us a lesson that we have to work at a high level with sustainable funding and with real transparency and regional and international collaboration," said the professor of emerging infectious diseases at Duke-NUS Medical School in Singapore.

He was speaking to The Straits Times in Conversations on the Future, a video series featuring prominent global thinkers.

The 62-year-old was part of the team that traced the origin of the severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) in 2002-2004 to wildlife - specifically, bats.

He is currently also the inaugural Executive Director of Singapore's Programme for Research in Epidemic Preparedness and Response.

Covid-19 has changed the culture of pandemic preparedness, Prof Wang maintains.

For good or bad, every country takes the issue of military preparedness seriously, he said.

"And yet, for pandemic preparedness, it has never been at that level."

He added: "The Sars-CoV-2 virus, or Covid-19, emerged in Wuhan. Initially…all the (cases) doctors were seeing were classed as severe pneumonia. But as soon as the virologists got onto it, within…seven to 10 days they were able to nail it down to say it's a new virus closely related to Sars-CoV-1. So, scientifically, you can say, we learnt a lot.

"Yet in terms of the international collaboration and also the way we contain the virus, the way we share the information, I think that there's still a lot to be learnt or to be improved."

"There was so much politics involved," he noted, citing "the blame game…(of) China versus the outside".

"I'm not here to judge who's right, who's wrong," he said.

But "once you start this kind of blame game, and try to even go to the extent to say 'you have to pay the world for the damage', then... you create an environment (in which) nobody wants to be responsible - and hence nobody wants you to discover the virus in their nation or in their region."

"And that to me, is very sad, because we should be opening up rather than closing down, and we should be totally doing this apolitically and fighting the common enemy regardless of where the virus started.

But there are encouraging developments, said Prof Wang, citing platforms now being established towards the common goal of fighting the next pandemic.

"The ideal situation would be to treat the virus as a common enemy and respond with total transparency... I think that there's still a lot to be learnt or to be improved in that regard."

Afghans receiving Covid-19 vaccine shots at a roadside camp in Kandahar, Afghanistan, on July 19, 2022. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

Prof Wang believes the next viruses to jump from animals to humans are more likely to come from wildlife than domesticated animals.

And in the case of China, where wildlife species are sold both live and dead in markets like the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market in Wuhan, the practice is so deeply ingrained in local culture that it is difficult to simply shut down, he said.

The Huanan market is where the earliest Covid-19 outbreak was documented.

Prof Wang recalled that following a mission put together by the World Health Organisation in August 2003 to investigate the origin of the Sars virus that spread rapidly to 29 countries and killed 774 people, China's government, in a rare public opinion poll, asked whether people would prefer to do away with the tradition of live animal trading and reduce the risk of future outbreaks, or maintain the tradition and take the risk.

"Guess what? Seventy-nine per cent of the residents basically said… keep the tradition and take the risk; that's how difficult it is," Prof Wang said.

"For Western society, or for people who live in areas that have never experienced a live animal market, you think it's simple, just shut it down," he pointed out.

"But in (China's case) there's 1,000 years of history… so I think it's not as simple as shut down the live animal market. Because if you do that, things will get worse because you force the trading underground."

And once driven underground, the lack of hygiene and stress to the animals would be very high.

"And I predict, we actually will see more transmissions and more outbreaks," he said.

The Conversations on the Future series focuses not on current news but on broader, and larger, long-term issues and trends.

Among the interviewees are Harvard professor Graham Allison, historian Wang Gungwu, science fiction writer Chen Qiufan, Yale Law professor Amy Chua, and diplomats Tommy Koh and Bilahari Kausikan.

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