In this May 24, 2021, file photo, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO Director-General, speaks at WHO headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland. The WHO is calling on China to be more transparent as scientists search for the origins of the coronavirus.
Laurent Gillieron / AP
Laurent Gillieron / AP
Laurent Gillieron / AP
BEIJING – China cannot accept the World Health Organization’s plan for the second phase of a study on the origins of COVID-19, a senior Chinese health official said on Thursday.
Zeng Yixin, the vice minister of the National Health Commission, said he was “quite puzzled” that the plan includes further investigation of the theory that the virus could have leaked from a Chinese laboratory.
He dismissed the idea of a lab leak as a rumor that goes against common sense and science.
“It is impossible for us to accept such an origin tracing plan,” he said at a press conference called to address the origins of COVID-19.
The search for the origin of the virus has become a diplomatic issue that has fueled the deterioration of China’s relations with the United States and many American allies. The United States and others say China has not been transparent about what happened in the early days of the pandemic. China accuses critics of trying to blame it for the pandemic and politicizing an issue that should be left to scientists.
Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO director general, acknowledged last week that there was a “premature push” after the first phase of the study to dismiss the theory that the virus could have escaped from a Chinese government laboratory in Wuhan. city where the disease was first detected in late 2019.
Most experts do not believe that a laboratory leak is the probable cause. The question is whether the possibility is so remote that it should be ruled out or deserves further study.
The first phase was carried out earlier this year by an international team of scientists who came to Wuhan to work with their Chinese counterparts. The team was accused of giving in to the Chinese side’s demands after it initially indicated that no further study was needed.
Zeng said the Wuhan lab does not have any viruses that can directly infect humans, noting that the WHO team concluded that a leak in the lab was highly unlikely. He added that speculation that the laboratory’s staff and graduate students had become infected and may have started the spread of the virus in the city was false.
Yuan Zhiming, director of the biosafety laboratory at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, said they had not stored or studied the new coronavirus before the outbreak. “I want to emphasize that … the Wuhan Institute of Virology has never designed, manufactured or filtered the new coronavirus,” he said.
The WHO team concluded that the virus most likely passed from animals to humans, probably from bats to an intermediate animal. The experts visited markets in Wuhan that had sold live animals and recommended further study of the farms supplying the market.
“In the next step, I believe that animal tracking should remain the priority direction. It is the most valuable field for our efforts,” Liang Wannian, who led the Chinese side, said at Thursday’s press conference.
Tedros said last week that he looked forward to better cooperation and access to data from China. “We ask China to be transparent, open and cooperate, especially in the information, the raw data that we requested in the early days of the pandemic,” he said.
His words were repeated at the same virtual press conference by German Health Minister Jens Spahn, who called on China to intensify cooperation in the search for the origin of the virus.
Zeng said China has always supported “scientific virus tracking” and wants the study to be extended to other countries and regions. “However, we are opposed to politicizing tracing work,” he said.
China has frequently tried to deflect allegations that the pandemic originated in Wuhan and was allowed to spread by early bureaucratic missteps and a cover-up attempt.
Government spokesmen have called for an investigation into whether the virus could have been produced in a US military laboratory, a theory that is not widely shared in the scientific community.
China has largely ended local transmission of COVID through closures and mask-wearing requirements, and has now administered more than 1.4 billion doses of Chinese vaccines. Only 12 new cases of national spread were reported on Thursday and the death toll in China from the virus has remained unchanged for months at 4,636.