China rejects next stage of WHO Covid origins probe

China has rejected the next stage of a World Health Organization-led probe into the origins of Covid-19 because investigators intend to treat the theory that it may have leaked from a Wuhan lab as plausible.

Zeng Yixin, vice-minister of the National Health Commission, told journalists at a press conference on Thursday that he had been “shocked” to see the “lab leak” hypothesis had become part of the proposed WHO plan for a second-phase study.

“We cannot accept this kind of origin tracing plan,” he said and reiterated China’s claim that the theory that the virus may have leaked from a government lab in Wuhan, the central Chinese city where the disease was discovered in late 2019, was conjecture.

Beijing has said consistently that the origins investigation should not challenge a finding by Chinese and WHO scientists in the first phase of the probe that a lab leak was “extremely unlikely”. China says investigators should instead look outside the country for evidence of the first human Covid-19 infections.

But Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO director-general, last week said it was “premature” to rule out the possibility that Sars-Cov-2, the virus that causes Covid-19, was accidentally released from a Wuhan lab.

The WHO’s proposed plan for the next stage of its investigation has not been made public. But Tedros said it included “audits of relevant laboratories and research institutions operating in the area of the initial human cases identified in December 2019”.

Scientists are divided over the “lab leak” theory and whether it should be a focus of research to trace how Covid-19 first infected humans. 

Many believe the virus probably jumped from an animal, probably bats, to another intermediary host via a natural process before infecting humans. Others argue that existing evidence does not rule out the lab leak theory. 

Joe Biden, the US president, asked US intelligence agencies in May to “redouble” efforts to reach a consensus about the most likely origins theory and called on the WHO to ensure the next stage of its investigation included China.

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Beijing has accused the US of politicising a scientific endeavour, as well as proposing that Covid-19 may have leaked from Fort Detrick, a US military lab. China has provided no evidence to support its claim.

“The US instantaneously clams up whenever there is a call for a WHO investigation into Fort Detrick,” said Zhao Lijian, a Chinese foreign ministry spokesman. “What dark secrets are hidden out of sight at Fort Detrick?” 

Zeng also denied that Chinese researchers were trying to hide something when they requested that samples of Covid-19 sequencing data were deleted from a US database. The scientists had merely asked that the samples were removed after the editing process was completed because they were no longer needed, he said.

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