China rejects WHO criticism and says Covid lab-leak theory ‘ruled out’

China has rejected accusations from the World Health Organization that it restricted access to key data on the origins of the coronavirus pandemic as strained relations between Beijing and the global body worsened.

Liang Wannian, the most senior Chinese scientist in the WHO-led team that visited the city of Wuhan in January to investigate the roots of the outbreak, said the WHO had been granted access to the same data as Chinese officials.

“There was some data that according to Chinese law could not be taken away or photographed but analysis in Wuhan was done together,” Liang told a press conference in Beijing on Wednesday.

Liang’s comments followed the released on Tuesday of the findings of the WHO’s four-week study. The report was immediately criticised by Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the WHO’s director-general, and 14 countries, including the US and the UK, who all called for further investigation.

The mission to Wuhan left important questions unanswered and “all hypotheses remain on the table,” Tedros said. He added that the WHO needed “full access to data including biological samples from at least September 2019”.

The White House also said that the WHO report appeared to lack “crucial data”.

China has carefully managed the investigation into its early response to the outbreak in Wuhan and promoted a theory that the virus may have originated outside China and arrived in the central Chinese city on the surface or packaging of frozen foods. 

The WHO described that theory in its report as a “possible pathway” but one that was less likely than transmission to humans via animals, either directly or via an intermediate animal host.

The report also concluded it was “extremely unlikely” the pandemic had originated from a laboratory leak, a hypothesis first advanced by the Trump administration last year. But Tedros on Tuesday said that part of the inquiry had not been “extensive enough” and called for further studies.

In response, China’s foreign ministry said it considered the report to have “ruled out” the possibility of the virus leaking from the Wuhan Institute of Virology.

“Speculation about laboratory leaks has always existed, but the team of specialists . . . found no evidence for suspicion,” Hua Chunying, a ministry spokeswoman told reporters.

Liang declined to directly answer questions about whether the further studies requested by Tedros and the other WHO member states would be conducted within China, saying that the details of future research plans had not yet been decided. “The next stage will be to build upon the results of origins research in China to search for the origins on a global scale,” he said.

Additional reporting Xinning Liu

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