A top health official said on Thursday that China rejected a World Health Organization (WHO) plan for a second phase of an investigation into the origin of the coronavirus, which included the hypothesis that it could have escaped from a Chinese laboratory.
The WHO proposed a second phase of research into the origins of the coronavirus in China this month, including audits of laboratories and markets in the city of Wuhan, and urged authorities to be transparent.
“We will not accept such an origins-tracing plan as it, in some aspects, disregards common sense and defies science,” Zeng Yixin, vice minister of the National Health Commission (NHC), told reporters.
Zeng said he was taken aback when he first read the WHO plan because it lists the hypothesis that a Chinese violation of laboratory protocols had caused the virus to leak during research.
The head of the WHO said earlier in July that investigations into the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic in China were being hampered by the lack of raw data on the first days of spread there.
Zeng reiterated China’s position that some data could not be completely shared due to privacy concerns.
“We hope the WHO would seriously review the considerations and suggestions made by Chinese experts and truly treat the origin tracing of the COVID-19 virus as a scientific matter, and get rid of political interference,” Zeng said.
China opposed politicising the study, he said.
The virus’s origins are still being debated by experts.
In December 2019, the first known cases were reported in Wuhan, a city in central China. The virus was thought to have jumped from animals sold for food at a city market to humans.
In May, US President Joe Biden directed aides to find answers to questions about the origin, claiming that US intelligence agencies were investigating competing theories, including the possibility of a laboratory accident in China.
At the news conference, Zeng, along with other officials and Chinese experts, urged the WHO to expand origin-tracing efforts beyond China to other countries.
“We believe a lab leak is extremely unlikely and it is not necessary to invest more energy and efforts in this regard,” said Liang Wannian, the Chinese team leader on the WHO joint expert team. More animal studies should be conducted, in particular in countries with bat populations, he said.
However, Liang stated that the lab leak hypothesis could not be completely dismissed, but that if evidence warranted, other countries could investigate the possibility that it leaked from their labs.
The Wuhan Institute of Virology’s (WIV) decision to shut down its gene sequence and sample databases in 2019 has been central to the lab leak theory.
When asked about this decision, Yuan Zhiming, professor at WIV and director of its National Biosafety Laboratory, told reporters that the databases were currently only shared internally due to concerns about cyber attacks.