BEIJING (AP) – China cannot agree to the World Health Organization’s plan for the second phase of a study into the origins of COVID-19, a senior Chinese health official said on Thursday.
Zeng Yixin, deputy minister of the National Health Commission, said he was “rather surprised” that the plan included further investigation into the theory that the virus may have leaked from a Chinese laboratory.
He dismissed the idea of the lab leak as a rumor that flies in the face of common sense and science.
“It is impossible for us to accept such an original research plan,” he said at a press conference called to address the problem of the origins of COVID-19.
Tracing 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 at the start of the pandemic. China accuses critics of seeking to blame it for the pandemic and politicizing an issue that should be left to scientists.
Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the director-general of the WHO, admitted last week that there had been a “premature surge” after the first phase of the study to rule out the theory that the virus could have escaped from ‘a Chinese government laboratory in Wuhan, the city where the disease was first detected in late 2019.
Most experts don’t think a lab leak is the likely cause. The question is whether the possibility is so distant that it should be dropped, or whether it merits further study.
The first phase 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 giving in to demands from the Chinese side after initially indicating that further study was not needed.
Zeng said the Wuhan lab does not have a virus that can directly infect humans and noted that the WHO team concluded that a lab leak was highly unlikely. He added that speculation that the lab’s staff and graduate students had been infected and could have triggered 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 did not store or study the new coronavirus before the outbreak. “I would like to point out that (…) the Wuhan Institute of Virology has never designed, manufactured or disclosed the new coronavirus,” he said.
The WHO team concluded that the virus most likely passed from animals to humans, possibly bats to an intermediate animal. Experts visited markets in Wuhan that had sold live animals and recommended further study of the farms that supplied the market.
“In the next step, I think animal tracing should always be the priority direction. This is the most valuable area for our efforts, ”Liang Wannian, who led the Chinese side, said at Thursday’s press conference.
Tedros said last week that he hoped for better cooperation and better access to data from China. “We ask China to be transparent, open and to cooperate, especially on the information, the raw data that we requested at the start of the pandemic,” he said.
His words were echoed at the same virtual press conference by German Health Minister Jens Spahn, who called on China to step up cooperation in finding the origin of the virus.
Zeng said China has always supported “scientific virus tracing” and would like to see the study extended to other countries and regions. “However, we are opposed to the politicization of tracing work,” he said.
China has frequently sought to deflect accusations that the pandemic originated in Wuhan and was allowed to spread through early bureaucratic faux pas and attempted cover-up.
Government spokesmen have called for an investigation to find out whether the virus could have been produced in a US military laboratory, a theory little shared in the scientific community.
China has largely ended local transmission of COVID through lockdowns 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 from the virus in China remained unchanged for months at 4,636.
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