GP Insights

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GP Insights # 555, 25 July 2021

COVID-19: China rejects the WHO investigation proposal
Sukanya Bali

What happened?
On 22 July, Chinese officials rejected the WHO's proposal for second phase research of Covid-19 origin. Zeng Yixin, Deputy head of China's National Health Commission said: "I feel disrespect for common sense and the arrogant attitude toward science revealed in this plan...we cannot accept this kind of plan for origin-tracing."
Liang Wannian, head of Chinese experts WHO-China team said: "to protect the privacy of the patient, we did not agree to provide original data, nor did we allow them to copy it." He also said, "international experts also fully understood this." 

On 21 July, Zhao Lijian, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson called for an investigation at Fort Detrick, a US military-run laboratory for a biological defense program tracing the origin of Covid-19. 

On 16 July, WHO director-general Dr Tedros Adhanom announced a five-part plan for research over the origin story which will look into the integrated studies as "One Health approach," prioritizing the geographic areas of circulation, study on Wuhan market, and animal track-back activities with epidemiologists and last, audit of laboratories and institution in Wuhan. He also called for "China to support this next phase of the scientific process by sharing all relevant data in a spirit of transparency."

What is the background? 
First, the politics behind the COVID origin probe, and the global demand. Soon after the outbreak of Covid-19, Australia called for an investigation into the origin. The then US President Donald Trump blamed China for the pandemic and referred to Covid as the "China virus" or the "Wuhan virus." The Trump administration also criticized WHO for being pro-China and pushed for withdrawing from the health agency. In retaliation, Beijing imposed trade barriers on Australian and US goods. In May 2021, after a media report emerged on an accidental lab leak in China, Joe Biden ordered intelligence agencies to "redouble efforts to collect and analyze information that could bring a definitive conclusion and report in 90 days." Leaders from G7 countries in a summit called for a new study into the origins of Covid-19, including in China, as the joint report by WHO-China lacked a credible conclusion. 

Second, China's response. Beijing has been consistently reluctant in permitting investigation on its soil. For months China delayed the international investigating team's visit. When the team was finally allowed, the investigation was strictly supervised by the scientists. China being dismissive about the lab leak theory and pushed for investigation beyond its borders or elsewhere. It alleged that the virus was manufactured in the US military laboratory or reached Wuhan via frozen food. The health authorities remained persistent over the possibility that the virus may have "jumped naturally from animal to human via an intermediate animal host." WIV, Yuan Zhiming also denied a report of the "three employees from the institute being sick" with Covid-19 symptoms before authorities disclosed the outbreak.

Third, the WHO's response. During the early months of the pandemic WHO struck a diplomatic tone with China and appreciated Beijing's efforts in curbing the spread. It refrained from blaming China for the origin of the virus. The US accused WHO of being "China-centric." But after the death of over 4 million, and no conclusion over the origin of the virus, WHO slightly toughened its stance. The joint investigation report was highly criticized by WHO for not being transparent. WHO Director-General also said, "I do not believe that this assessment was extensive enough" and demanded a "more robust conclusion" report. WHO has now laid down a proposal for the investigation in China and called for the "evaluation of the lab leak theory."   
What does it mean?
Lack of transparency, inadequate access to raw data, and the politicized nature of the investigations may delay insights into the Covid-19 origin. Beijing's refusal to give access may raise more speculation about China's role in the pandemic.

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