“The work plan on the second phase origins study proposed by the WHO Secretariat is at odds with the position of China and many other countries on the issue,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian told reporters Monday, per a transcript. “We are concerned about certain countries’ politicization of the issue.”
That statement strengthens Beijing’s opposition to additional scrutiny of a virology laboratory in Wuhan, from which the virus might have emerged in late 2019. WHO investigators, after extensive negotiations, visited China earlier this year and declared it “extremely unlikely” that the pandemic was caused by a lab leak. However, those findings have been questioned not only by the United States and allied governments but also WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.
“There was a premature push to, you know, especially reduce one of the options, like the lab theory,” Tedros warned last week. “If we get full information, we can exclude that. So one of the challenges, again, is, you know, a challenge of access and also transparency with regard to the hypotheses that are put forth.”
That public pressure from Tedros contrasts with his posture in the earliest months of the pandemic, when the WHO’s failure to rebuke Beijing publicly for a lack of transparency about the emerging public health crisis sparked international outrage and suspicions of corruption at the WHO. “I was a lab technician myself — I’m an immunologist and have worked in the lab — and lab accidents happen,” the director-general stated. "It’s common. I have seen it happening, and I have myself had errors. So it can happen. And checking what happened, especially in our labs, is important.”
That shift irked Chinese officials. “The fact is, China showed raw data that requires special attention, item by item, when the joint mission was conducting the origins study in China,” Zhao insisted. “Foreign experts said on multiple occasions that the expert group has access to large amounts of data and information and fully understands that some data cannot be copied or taken abroad as it concerns personal privacy.”
One prominent member of the initial WHO investigation acknowledged that the team members simply asked Chinese officials if their laboratory was the scene of an initial virus outbreak and accepted their denial at face value.
“Well, what else can we do? There's a limit to what you can do, and we went right up to that limit,” EcoHealth Alliance President Peter Daszak said in March. “We asked them tough questions. They weren't vetted in advance. And the answers they gave, we found to be believable — correct and convincing.”
Chinese officials want the WHO to investigate whether the pandemic first began in a different country entirely — a proposal often paired with attempts to blame the pandemic on the U.S. military. Zhao, notwithstanding his complaint about Tedros’s position, hesitated to state explicitly that Beijing will not agree to a follow-up investigation.