After inconclusive WHO report, China says next step of COVID origins search should include U.S. military lab

Foreign Affairs

After the WHO released a report that raised more questions than answers about the origins of COVID-19, Beijing pushed back against accusations that it had interfered in the inquiry. The Chinese Foreign Ministry then suggested that the Fort Detrick biological lab in the U.S. should be investigated next.

Illustration by Derek Zheng

A day after the World Health Organization published its 120-page report on the joint WHO-China inquiry into the origins of COVID-19 — which has been described as containing “a glut of new detail but no profound new insights” — Beijing pushed back on accusations that it had delayed the work of investigators in Wuhan or hindered their access to data in any way.

Those accusations came from many sides: Not just the U.S. and 13 other countries in a joint statement yesterday, but also the European Union, and even the director-general of WHO, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.

  • Tedros “surprised many observers,” the Washington Post reports, “by saying the report did not conduct an ‘extensive enough’ assessment of the possibility of a lab leak,” and “pointedly [saying] he expected future collaborations to include ‘more timely and comprehensive data-sharing.’”
  • In response, the leader of the Chinese side of the WHO inquiry, Liáng Wànnián 梁万年, insisted today that the investigators had “visited all the places, met all the people, studied all the facilities and read all the documents, as they had wished.”
  • Liang also “rejected complaints that the publication of the report had been repeatedly delayed,” per Reuters.

To take a step back from politics, the Associated Press summarizes the leading theory on the origins of COVID-19, based on what most scientists, and the WHO report, have said:

The WHO report concluded that the virus or a progenitor of it was most likely carried by a bat, which infected another animal that infected a human. Researchers have not been able to trace the bat or the intermediate animal yet, but suspicion has fallen on bat habitats in southwest China or nearby Southeast Asia.

But Beijing made no mention of studying bat habitats, in China or even in Southeast Asia, in its Foreign Ministry briefing today (English, Chinese) that covered many questions about the WHO report. Instead, spokesperson Huà Chūnyíng 华春莹 opened with a long statement denying abuses in Xinjiang, saying any such allegations were a “strategic conspiracy” — and suggesting that any allegation about Beijing’s interference in COVID origin-tracing was the same.

  • Hua then served up some conspiracies of her own: After mischaracterizing the WHO finding on the likelihood of COVID-19 making an “introduction through a laboratory incident” — that it is “extremely unlikely” — as having been “basically ruled out,” Hua pointed a finger instead at a U.S. military-run biological lab: Fort Detrick.
  • “As you all know, they’ve looked at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, and done some research. So when will the U.S. biological base at Fort Detrick, with a big question mark over it, allow international experts in for a visit?
  • Hua made her conspiracy-spinning intent even clearer by adding, “It seems that the U.S. media have avoided covering this issue since the outbreak of the epidemic. In June 2019, there were reports in the U.S. media about this, but later on we could hardly see any. Why is that? Haven’t you American media always had a good tradition of getting to the bottom of things, following the facts, and doing in-depth investigative reports? Why do the media, which are so good at this kind of investigative reporting, now remain silent?”
  • Per the Wall Street Journal: “Chinese officials have repeatedly suggested that the pandemic didn’t start in China and that the virus could have originated at Fort Detrick, but haven’t presented any evidence. Most scientists say they have seen nothing to corroborate that idea.”

The bottom line: No one is satisfied with the results so far of the WHO inquiry into the origins of COVID-19. It’s entirely possible that we will never know exactly how the disease began to spread. But prominent figures from any country promoting lab leak theories without evidence — as former U.S. CDC director Robert Redfield also did last week — is not helping with the scientific process.