The coronavirus has turned America upside-down. In less than three months, the virus has killed 70,000 Americans and destroyed more than 30 million jobs. According to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, “enormous evidence” shows that the virus emerged from a laboratory in Wuhan, China—not in that city’s infamous “wet markets.” But while few question that the virus originates in Wuhan, many don’t know that Wuhan is also the source of another deadly epidemic: America’s fentanyl overdoses.
Fentanyl, a form of synthetic opioid, has quickly become America’s most dangerous drug. In 2018, fentanyl killed 31,897 people in the United States—more than twice the number of any other narcotic. The chemical compound is so lethal, in fact, that just two milligrams—enough to cover Lincoln’s beard on a penny—can prove fatal. In the past five years, fentanyl has devastated hundreds of American communities, particularly in the Northeast and Midwest, where overdose death rates have skyrocketed.
“Most of the fentanyl and novel synthetic opioids in U.S. street markets—as well as their precursor chemicals—originate in China, where the regulatory system does not effectively police the country’s expansive pharmaceutical and chemical industries,” a recent RAND analysis concludes. Chinese manufacturers export the drug in two ways. First, they send shipments directly to American criminal organizations via the U.S. Postal Service, UPS, and FedEx, using the “dark web” to process orders. Second, they ship fentanyl and precursor chemicals to drug cartels in Mexico, which then smuggle the final product into American markets.
Over the past decade, Wuhan has emerged as the global headquarters for fentanyl production. The city’s chemical and pharmaceutical manufacturers hide production of the drug within their larger, licit manufacturing operations, then ship it abroad using deliberately mislabeled packaging, concealment techniques, and a complex network of forwarding addresses. According to a recent ABC News report, “huge amounts of these mail-order [fentanyl] components can be traced to a single, state-subsidized company in Wuhan.”
Earlier this year, when Wuhan went into lockdown due to the coronavirus, North America’s illegal drug market went into panic mode. Drug cartels in Mexico forecasted a massive spike in prices for fentanyl and methamphetamine; law-enforcement officials in the U.S. reported a shortage of drugs in Denver, Houston, and Philadelphia. Still, the drug continues to kill. Even amid state lockdown orders, street dealers in places like San Francisco’s Tenderloin neighborhood have donned gloves and masks and continued distributing Chinese-supplied fentanyl to addicts.
Evidence suggests that China is at best negligent and at worst intentional in these two situations. Beijing ignored repeated warnings about safety concerns at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, then covered up what some observers, including Pompeo and President Donald Trump, suspect was an accidental release of the virus into the human population. As for drug exports, Chinese leadership has consistently failed to regulate the illicit fentanyl market, refused to crack down on producers, and interfered with FDA inspectors hoping to investigate pharmaceutical production.
The next few years may augur a major realignment in the Sino-American relationship. The stakes couldn’t be higher: the two nations have trillions in financial ties, plus vast networks of allies. The virus and the fentanyl epidemic should serve as grim reminders to American policymakers that getting U.S. posture correct as regards China—in ways that serve our national interest—should be a top priority.
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