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 Thursday.
Zeng Yixin, deputy minister of the National Health Commission, said he was “rather surprised” because the plan includes further investigation of the theory that the virus may have leaked from a Chinese laboratory.
He dismissed the notion of the lab leak as a rumor that goes against common sense and science.
“It is impossible for us to accept the origin tracing scheme,” he said at a press conference held to address the issue of the origins of COVID-19.
The search for the source of the virus has become a diplomatic issue that has fueled China’s deteriorating relations with the United States and many American allies. The US and others say China was not transparent about what happened in the early days of the epidemic. China accuses its critics of seeking to blame it for the epidemic and of politicizing an issue that should be left to scientists.
In a statement Thursday, the Biden administration criticized China’s rejection of the World Health Organization’s plan for a second phase of a study on the origins of COVID-19.
“We are deeply disappointed. Their position is frankly irresponsible and dangerous,” the White House said. “Together with other member states around the world, we continue to call on China to provide the required access to data and samples. This is critical so that we can understand how to prevent the next pandemic. This is about saving lives in the future, and it is not the time to stall.”
Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of the World Health Organization, admitted last week that there was an “early push” after the first phase of the study to rule out the theory that the virus may have escaped from a Chinese government lab in Wuhan. The city where the disease was first detected in late 2019.
Most experts don’t think the likely cause is a lab leak. The question is whether the probability is too remote to be dropped, or whether it deserves further study.
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The first stage was conducted earlier this year by an international team of scientists who came to Wuhan to work with their Chinese counterparts. The team was accused of bowing to the Chinese side’s demands after initially stating that further study was not necessary.
Zeng said the Wuhan lab did not contain a virus that could directly infect humans, and noted that the WHO team had concluded that a leak in the lab was highly unlikely. He added that speculation that lab staff and graduate students have been infected and may have started spreading the virus in the city is incorrect.
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Yuan Zhiming, director of the Biosafety Laboratory at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, said they had not stored or studied the novel coronavirus before the outbreak.
“I want to confirm that … the Wuhan Institute of Virology never designed, manufactured or leaked the novel coronavirus,” he said.
The WHO team concluded that the virus most likely passed from animals to humans, possibly from bats to an intermediary animal. Experts visited markets in Wuhan that were selling live animals, and recommended further study of the farms supplying the market.
“In the next step, I believe animal tracking should remain the first direction. It is the most valuable area of our efforts,” Liang Wanyan, who chaired the Chinese side, said at a press conference on Thursday.
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Tedros said last week that he hopes to improve cooperation and access to data from China. “We ask China to be transparent, open and cooperate, especially with regard to the information and preliminary data that we requested in the early days of the epidemic,” he said.
His words were echoed 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 tracking of viruses” and wanted the study to be extended to other countries and regions. “But we are against the politicization of tracing work,” he said.
China has repeatedly sought to deflect accusations that the epidemic originated in Wuhan and was allowed to spread through early bureaucratic gaffes and cover-up attempts.
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Government spokesmen called for an investigation into whether the virus was produced in a US military laboratory, a theory not widely shared by the scientific community.
China has largely ended domestic transmission of COVID-19 with lockdowns and mask-wearing requirements, and has now administered more than 1.4 billion doses of Chinese vaccines. Twelve new locally spread cases were reported on Thursday and China says the death toll from the virus has not changed in months at 4,636.
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