There is increasing chatter in the Western press that Covid-19 escaped from a lab in Wuhan.
Suppose we concede that Covid-19 did escape from a lab. What of it? This is not the first time such an accident has happened and it certainly will not be the last.
A 2003 article in The Lancet Infectious Diseases suggests that a case of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (Sars) was the result of a lab accident. A 2004 New York Times article reported that a Russian scientist working for a former Soviet biological weapons laboratory died after "accidentally sticking herself with a needle laced with Ebola".
In 2014, an article in The Guardian reported on numerous safety breaches at UK labs. "One blunder led to live anthrax being sent from a government facility to unsuspecting labs across the UK, a mistake that exposed other scientists to the disease. Another caused the failure of an air handling system that helped contain foot and mouth disease at a large animal lab."
The same year, the American Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) potentially exposed researchers to anthrax when the microbes were sent to laboratories "that were not equipped to safely handle the pathogen".
So how exactly does it matter even if Covid-19 escaped from a lab in Wuhan?
The only way this story makes sense is to eventually accuse China of engaging in bio-terrorism; that China knowingly and deliberately let loose this scourge on humanity.
But this narrative has problems. First, regardless of the hype and hyper-ventilation, Covid-19 is a relatively mild pathogen. Despite the deaths of 3.68m so far, this is comparable with several other diseases. Covid-19 is less deadly and less infectious than originally assumed and has a high recovery rate.
So, to buy this story, one would need to assume that China spent enormous amount of time and effort to develop and release a virus that is not all that deadly. One would further have to assume that China did so because it was certain that the release of this pathogen would cause the West to lose its mind and inflict catastrophic social and economic damage to itself on its own (or possibly aided by Chinese misinformation).
But, if China really wanted to engage in this type of bio-terrorism, then why waste time with Covid-19? Why not invest in something more deadly such as Ebola, anthrax or bubonic plague?
The reality is different.
As the Western countries emerge from the pandemic, they are realising that the geo-political reality has changed rapidly. China has vastly expanded its economic and political reach among developing countries whose markets are much coveted by the Western nations.
This process, happening for a while, has gained steam recently. During the pandemic, the Western countries effectively made it clear to developing countries that when it came to vaccines or other help the latter were completely on their own. The West's priority was the West as they closed off their borders to the denizens of the Third World.
Into that breach stepped China with huge financial investments and now its own vaccine. As of now, 40 countries, including much of South America, are using the Chinese-developed vaccine.
The West is not only staring at the possibility of losing these markets but big pharma is distraught at the thought of losing out; especially as it looks like we will be taking the Covid-19 vaccine every year.
The only feasible option left is to prove to the world that China let lose this pathogen deliberately.
But bear in mind that this charge is coming to you from the same fertile minds that attacked Iraq following the September 11 attacks; even though Iraq had nothing to do with those attacks. Those same people also spun the story that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction and spoke ominously about mushroom clouds. It was clear to many at the time that these stories were fabrications and the invasion made the truth clear to all.
Now, we have this campaign to isolate China. To be clear, a unipolar world dominated by China, a Communist dictatorship with no allegiance to due process, human rights or basic legal protections will be infinitely worse than a unipolar world dominated by the United States, which, in spite of all the recent assaults, still has robust legal institutions in place.
But, trying to circumscribe China's influence via a campaign of baseless canards will not advance the West's civilising mission and will further tarnish the image of democracy.
Scientists should ponder at length before lending their credibility to this smear campaign.
• Ananish Chaudhuri is Professor of Economics at the University of Auckland Business School and the author of the forthcoming book, Nudged into Lockdown? Behavioural Economics, Uncertainty and Covid-19.