China rejects WHO plan for Wuhan lab audits, suggests COVID origins study continue in other countries

Foreign Affairs

Beijing put the kibosh on any hopes the World Health Organization had for further research in China on how the pandemic began.

Yuan Zhiming, a researcher at the Wuhan Institute of Virology
Yuan Zhiming, a researcher at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, denied that WIV had anything to do with the origins of COVID-19. REUTERS/Shubing Wang

Today, China doubled down on its COVID-19 origins inquiry position laid out in March, after the World Health Organization released an inconclusive report on the origins of the pandemic based on visits to Wuhan.

  • That position can be summarized as follows: China has been fully transparent in the origins inquiry, there is no need for further investigation in Wuhan, and the next phase of WHO’s search should include other countries — in particular, the United States and its Fort Detrick military lab.

WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus has twice upset China since the release of that initial report, first in March by suggesting WHO did not conduct an “extensive enough” assessment of the possibility of a lab leak, and last week in remarks on the next phase of the origins inquiry, in which he included this as one of five areas for further study:

…audits of relevant laboratories and research institutions operating in the area of the initial human cases identified in December 2019.

Chinese officials made clear their displeasure with WHO today in a major press conference (in Chinese) that included figures such as Zēng Yìxīn 曾益新, deputy head of the National Health Commission, Yuán Zhìmíng 袁志明, a researcher at the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV), and Liáng Wànnián 梁万年, the leader of the Chinese side of the WHO inquiry.

  • Zeng said that he was “surprised” to see audits of labs in Wuhan suggested as a research objective for the next phase.
  • WHO’s plan is “impossible for us to accept,” Zeng emphasized: It “does not respect common sense and goes against science.”
  • Yuan said that suggestions of lab manipulation of SARS-CoV-2 went against the “general consensus in academia,” and denied that WIV had ever “been exposed to, stored, or studied” the virus before it spread to humans.
  • Zeng and Liang both emphasized that WHO’s initial report had found a lab leak origin to be “extremely unlikely,” and Liang added, “we think…there is no need to invest any more energy and resources in it now.”
  • Zeng and Liang both also pointed abroad, though not at any country in particular, saying that the next phase of WHO’s inquiry should include other places and not focus on China. Liang added, “we suggest that countries that have not yet conducted laboratory visits like Wuhan should do so, so as to at least have a better understanding of possible leakage problems and indeed safety problems.”

The Chinese Foreign Ministry has been more obvious in pointing fingers: “On the issue of origin-tracing, some people in the United States may indeed have a guilty conscience,” spokesperson Zhào Lìjiān 赵立坚 said today (in English, Chinese). China “has every reason to raise questions” about the U.S. military lab at Fort Detrick.

  • Earlier this week, Zhao had twice cited a petition, promoted by the nationalist Global Times tabloid, as evidence it was the “will of the people” for WHO to investigate Fort Detrick.

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