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July 06, 2020

Did Covid-19 escape from a Wuhan lab?

In our coverage we largely stayed away from speculation about the virus, especially the nonsensical predictions about its spread and cross-country comparisons. During the pandemic we did report on an intelligence report by the five-eyes agencies, those from five English-speaking countries, which discussed and dismissed the notion that the Covid-19 virus was man-made. Last night, we saw a report from Sky News citing a former chief of MI6, who said that the virus may have come from a lab in Wuhan and escaped by accident. We recall that the five-eyes report discussed this possibility and could not rule it out, but found no hard evidence and therefore did not conclude that this is what might have happened. Sir Richard Dearlove, the former spy chief who is now at Cambridge University, called the virus an engineered escapee.

Separately, we have come across other evidence, on the genetic sequencing of the virus, that would be consistent with Sir Richard's assessment. He went out of his way to dismiss any suggestions of a conspiracy. He does not think there was anything sinister at all about the Wuhan Institute of Technology. We know that Chinese scientists run experiments on viruses. Sir Richard spoke about it during a public panel discussion, and said the issue should be discussed more openly in the science community. The story also quotes a virologist debunking the idea that it is technically possible to alter the pathology of a virus. And then there are others who disagree with that argument. Virologists seem to be all over the place on this. The Wuhan Institute of Technology, meanwhile, says there is no way that the virus could have come from it.

We are no scientists, and approach this issue in the same spirit as Sir Richard: with an open mind and lots of questions. We are interested in this debate specifically because of its impact on policy towards China. A single man's view will not tip the balance of the argument, but spy chiefs are trained to make sense of uncertain information, and to ask questions. What this tells us is that this question will not only be debated, but investigated.

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July 06, 2020

What to make of Angela Merkel's U-turn

Wolfgang Münchau argues that the apparent shift in the German position towards supporting a recovery fund is widely misunderstood. During the eurozone crisis, Angela Merkel only ever did the minimum needed to ensure that the eurozone would not collapse. This is still the case now. The difference is that the minimum is more than it used to be. This is the price of having kicked the can down the road too many times.

We'd like to make a few extra points beyond those made in the column. There are a lot of people who see Merkel as the antidote to Donald Trump, as the last bulwark of western liberal democracy, and naturally they want her to succeed. In doing so, they overload her with praise. We don't dismiss the possibility of a leader changing position. Helmut Kohl did this in 1990 when he seized the moment of German unification and European monetary union. Mitterrand's unpopular shift in French economic policy was a pre-condition for a future monetary union to get off the ground. Merkel, however, has been in office for 15 years and her two biggest shifts were one-time political stunts. The first was phasing out nuclear energy, and the second opening the border to Syrian refugees. However you might judge these policies, there were not part of a strategic plan. Germany's energy policy is a mess. And the EU is as far away from a common asylum policy than it ever was.

So, the question we have to ask ourselves today is whether the recovery fund constitutes such a strategic shift. On its own, the answer is almost certainly no. Once conditions are attached to it and amounts are agreed, the fund will disburse money on the order of a fraction of 1% of GDP for two to four years. The biggest misunderstanding is that the fund sets a precedent. The legal basis makes it clear that this is an emergency. Perpetuation requires treaty change, and Merkel has never been an enthusiastic supporter of that. We keep an open mind on whether it will happen eventually, but it will be the political generation after Merkel that will do it. If so, they will get well-deserved credit. What posterity will remember of the Merkel era is that the eurozone missed a big opportunity during the 2012-2015 crisis. 

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