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Foreign bio-lab research projects need close monitoring

AS the world continues to receive updates on Covid-19 and the toll it takes on populations, US President Donald Trump has continued going on the offensive against China and the World Health Organisation (WHO) leadership.

President Trump is in the midst of a Covid-19 propaganda drive as the US continues to suffer in the grip of the Covid-19 epidemic. He has been quoted by international media on separate occasions claiming that Covid-19 is a Chinese virus, fuelling conspiracy theory debates surrounding the outbreak of the epidemic.

It is a no-brainer, Coronavirus outbreak was first reported in Wuhan in the Central Chinese Hubei Province, before it spread to other parts of the world, beginning with Iran. However, public opinion aired through most international media outlets suggest that President Trump’s move to label Covid-19 as a Chinese virus did not augur well with the majority of the world citizen.

The outbreak of the virus has been received with mixed feelings, with conspiracy theorists suggesting that it was the work of one hostile state against its enemy.

While some propagate that the virus was leaked at a laboratory at the Institute of Virology in Wuhan, others suggest that it is the work of the US, covertly planted in China by US soldiers who participated in October 2019 military games in Wuhan.

Though such conspiracy theories have been spreading for a while since the outbreak of the Covid-19, yet there’s still no official proof. In March this year, the head of Iran Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) Hossein Salami claimed that the US could be the prime culprit behind Covid-19 outbreak that hit China and then Iran.

“It is possible that this virus is a product of a biological attack by America which initially spread to China and then to Iran and the rest of the world,” he was quoted as saying, threatening that the virus will eventually be turned against those who unleashed it.

While governments around the world are taking unprecedented measures in the fight against the pandemic, President Trump and the US administration have recently been at the forefront in campaigning against WHO; attacking its global leadership for allegedly failure to institute strict measures to control the spread of the epidemic.

It might have been poor timing, but some quarters have also expressed surprise that the Trump’s administration shift of blame to WHO should have come only after both the organisation and African leaders lambasted the suggestion of using Africans as guinea pigs for testing Coronavirus vaccine trials in humans.

This move by the Trump administration has further fuelled the ongoing conspiracy theories. Whether the Coronavirus is a result of biomedical lab experiments or some sort of a biological warfare remains a conspiracy. Yet the truth also remains that for decades there have been unending allegations against the US for its clandestine biomedical programmes.

In 2012, for example, a Bulgarian investigative journalist Dilyana Gaytandzhieva claimed in a report that the US is actively producing biological weapons such as lethal viruses, bacteria, and toxins in at least 25 countries across the globe.

According to the document, it is alleged that the US bio-laboratories under the Pentagon’s programme are situated in Georgia, Uganda, Tanzania, Iraq, Afghanistan and South East Asia. In spite of the fact that claims made in the report cannot be independently verified, such suspicions require thorough independent laboratorial investigations by governments in those countries.

Recently, President John Pombe Magufuli voiced his concerns over the accuracy of Covid-19 test results after some non-human samples taken to the National Community Health Laboratory tested positive for Coronavirus. According to President Magufuli: “One can smell a dirty games going on at the lab as the results illustrate that something is wrong somewhere.”

In a televised address, he said that it was the right time for relevant authorities and institutions such as the National Institute of Medical Research (NIMR) and higher learning institutions to demonstrate high level of integrity and professionalism.

President Magufuli’s queries over the accuracy of the Covid-19 testing results are valid taking into consideration that most of vaccines, medical testing kits, reagents and other equipment used in treatment and for various medical lab researches in African countries are imported.

The president’s concerns should therefore be taken as a wake-up call to other African countries; that they should treat with suspicion before authenticate any imported medical health research projects for the benefit and survival of their populations.

Under several healthcare cooperation arrangements in East Africa, for example, foreign military epidemiologists are said to be helping the countries wipe out infectious diseases such as Ebola through research labs.

Although done under the pretext of vaccine development, East African countries should learn from their West African counterparts, where frequent Ebola virus outbreaks were reported in countries like Liberia and Sierra Leone that host foreign bio-labs.

In Tanzania, there have been reports of bio-medical research to help fight various infectious diseases including Malaria, HIV/Aids, Ebola and Dengue as well as other deadly Influenza. Now a question is asked: is the government fully involved in the activities conducted in those laboratories?

Recent events have indicated that there is the possibility that relevant local authorities may not be fully aware of what exactly is going on.

As such there is the urgent need for authorities to monitor and keep a closer eye on foreign-manned and funded labs in the country which would in turn reassure the public where there are any queries and most importantly it would also help track the whole process from sample collections to test analysis.

For example, it remains unknown from whom the foreign scientists conducting medical research in the country get their samples to use in their biological experiments. It does not need a wide stretch of the imagination to know that samples for example for test analysis of Malaria, HIV/Aids or Dengue diseases, are collected from local people.

In this case, who can guarantee that these samples may not be put to bad use in the future through sophisticated scientific technology, say, to control the growth of population in Tanzania and Africa at large?

On that backbone, governments in East Africa should be vigilant enough to foresee and prevent any malicious intentions that could be undertaken by foreign bio-labs in the guise of medical research activities. For example, again, does the country’s medical research organ, the National Institute of Medical Research (NIMR), fully participate in such laboratory research?

Are they aware of what exactly is going on in Tanzania under Walter Reed Army Institute of Research (WRAIR) programmes that deal with among other things, high impact infectious diseases such as Malaria, HIV/Aids, Ebola and Dengue and other influenza?

What are the risks posed by the ongoing research on highly infectious pathogens and viruses in case of a mishandling or leak that could lead to an outbreak of a deadly diseases? At this juncture, this may be viewed as a mere hypothesis.

However, in the event of an outbreak of a deadly disease worse than Ebola and the novel Covid-19, damage to Tanzania’s international image and reputation, let alone the economy in terms of investment and the tourism industry, would spread far and wide.

This would, in the process, derail the country from its long-term development agenda. Authorities need to act sooner than later.

JULIUS Mugasha (52) a resident of Butulage village ...

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Author: DAILY NEWS Reporter

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