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China says Covid-19 origin probe should shift focus to other countries

Medical workers inoculate students with the vaccine against the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) at a university in Qingdao, Shandong province, China March 30, 2021. Picture taken March 30, 2021. China Daily via REUTERS (VIA REUTERS)Premium
Medical workers inoculate students with the vaccine against the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) at a university in Qingdao, Shandong province, China March 30, 2021. Picture taken March 30, 2021. China Daily via REUTERS (VIA REUTERS)

Head of the WHO earlier called for more robust investigation into whether virus escaped from Chinese lab

China on Wednesday called for the World Health Organization to probe whether Covid-19 first emerged in other countries—possibly including from a U.S. military laboratory—in its first public response to a call from the head of the agency for a more robust investigation into whether the virus escaped from a Chinese lab.

A WHO-led team that visited China earlier this year to explore the pandemic’s origins concluded in a report published Tuesday that the coronavirus was “extremely unlikely" to have leaked from a Chinese laboratory and recommended no further study of that possibility.

However, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said shortly before the report’s release that the team’s assessment of a potential lab leak hadn’t been extensive enough and that further investigation was needed, adding he was ready to deploy more specialists to study that possibility.

Asked about Dr. Tedros’s comments at a daily news briefing on Wednesday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying repeatedly referred to the team’s “important conclusion" that a lab leak in Wuhan was extremely unlikely.

“They have basically excluded the possibility of a lab incident" in Wuhan, she said.

She urged the WHO to investigate evidence of early outbreaks in other countries, and suggested that any future laboratory probes should include a U.S. military laboratory at Fort Detrick, Maryland.

“As you know relevant study is already done in Wuhan labs, but when will Fort Detrick be open to those experts?" she asked. “If necessary, we hope the U.S. can be as open and candid as China."

Chinese officials have repeatedly suggested that the pandemic didn’t start in China and that the virus could have originated at Fort Detrick, but haven't presented any evidence. Most scientists say they have seen nothing to corroborate that idea.

“In my three decades of working with the World Health Organization, I have never seen something quite like this…It’s becoming ludicrous," said Lawrence Gostin, a professor of global health law at Georgetown University. “Countries are just throwing out evidence-free charges against other countries and putting the WHO in the middle of a frankly childish geopolitical spat…It’s tit-for-tat geopolitics, and it’s got to stop."

Fort Detrick is home to important parts of the U.S. biological-defense program and other medical-research efforts conducted by the military. Scientists at research institutes there have developed and tested vaccines, antitoxins and other medicines against anthrax, smallpox and other diseases that could be used as biological weapons. They also conduct research on diseases of broader national security or public-health interest such as malaria and Ebola, and are working on vaccines and medicines for Covid-19.

The U.S. State Department didn’t respond to a request for comment and U.S. Army officials declined to comment. The WHO also didn’t comment.

“If there were sound, technically credible reasons for such a step, we would of course support it—but there are none," said a spokeswoman from the White House’s National Security Council. “If a future pandemic were to originate here or anywhere else, we would similarly insist on a swift and transparent, science-based evaluation. In fact, that’s one of our concerns about this process—it must not be allowed to set a terrible precedent for the future."

Ms. Hua declined repeatedly to respond directly when asked whether Beijing would permit additional missions to investigate laboratories in Wuhan, and when it would begin the second phase of studies outlined in the WHO-led team’s report.

Her remarks highlight the challenge that the U.S. and other countries face in pushing for a more transparent and independent investigation into the origins of a pandemic that has now killed more than 2.8 million people.

The U.S. and more than a dozen countries issued a statement on Tuesday expressing concern over the perceived delay and lack of access in the Wuhan mission. The European Union issued a separate statement along the same lines.

Neither mentioned a potential laboratory leak. Still, Ms. Hua accused the U.S. on Wednesday of “ganging up" with other countries and “flagrantly denying" the WHO-led team’s conclusions, in a way that she warned would hinder international cooperation on tracing the pandemic’s origins.

The WHO-led team reached its conclusions after visiting three lab facilities including one at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, which was at the center of Trump administration assertions that the virus could have emerged from a laboratory.

In its report Tuesday, the team said it had found no evidence of safety lapses, potential Covid-19 cases among laboratory staff or any work or storage of a virus similar enough to the new coronavirus to have caused the pandemic.

One of those laboratories had moved to a new site, close to a seafood market linked to many early infections, on Dec. 2, 2019—six days before the person with the earliest confirmed case fell sick. But the report said that laboratory hadn’t reported any incidents related to the move or been working on any coronaviruses or bat viruses.

However, WHO team members have said in recent weeks that they didn’t have the authority, forensic expertise or access to original data, samples and safety records that they would need to conduct a full audit of any laboratory.

Liang Wannian, the head of the Chinese team in Wuhan, told a separate news conference Wednesday that he was unsure how Dr. Tedros had reached his conclusion that the team’s assessment of a potential lab leak wasn’t extensive enough.

“Whether it’s sufficient or not, that is for scientists and for history to say," Dr. Liang said.

Dr. Liang also suggested that the search for Covid-19’s origins should now shift its focus to other countries, although he said additional missions to China could be planned if necessary.

The WHO team’s report said it was possible the pandemic began outside Wuhan—or even outside China. The team reviewed death and hospital records from the Chinese city, presented by Chinese counterparts, to ascertain when the virus may have begun spreading there. It concluded that there was very little evidence of substantial spread in Wuhan or its surrounding region before December 2019.

Yet the team has been trying to reconcile that conclusion with signs that the virus had already spread to Italy by late November. That month, Italian medical staff took skin biopsies from a 25-year-old woman whose samples would later show evidence of the coronavirus. A throat swab taken in early December from an Italian boy stricken with measles would also later test positive for the virus. Sewage samples taken on Nov. 27, 2019, in Brazil also later tested positive.

“There is some literature from outside China, particularly in Europe, that is suggestive of earlier circulation," Marion Koopmans, a Dutch virologist on the international team, told a news conference Tuesday. “We need to keep an open mind."

One explanation, scientists have said, is that the virus was quietly spreading in and around Wuhan for weeks, or even months, before attracting attention. But those clusters would have likely been very small, and the cases would have probably been mostly mild. There is also the possibility that the pandemic began in another part of China, seeding clusters that were too small or remote to attract notice.

“The current thinking is that we are still working with the start in and around Wuhan and working backward on how it came here," Peter Ben Embarek, a Danish food-safety expert leading the international team, told the Tuesday news conference. “It is perfectly possible you would have sporadic cases in and around Wuhan before December, November, even October 2019…That earlier move of the virus outside of the area could potentially be explained that way."

This story has been published from a wire agency feed without modifications to the text.

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