China said on Thursday that a World Health Organization (WHO) proposal to audit Chinese labs as part of further research into the origins of the coronavirus pandemic showed “disrespect” and “arrogance toward science”.
Last week, the UN health body said a second phase of the international investigation should include audits of Chinese labs, amid mounting pressure from the United States to investigate a biotech lab in Wuhan.
The proposal from WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus included “audits of relevant laboratories and research institutions working on the first human cases identified in December 2019” – referring to the Chinese city of Wuhan.
But China’s deputy health minister Zeng Yixin told reporters on Thursday that he was “extremely surprised” by the plan, which he said showed “disrespect for common sense and arrogance towards science”.
Long derided as a right-wing conspiracy theory and vehemently rejected by Beijing, the idea that Covid-19 may have sprung from a lab leak is gaining traction.
Beijing has repeatedly maintained that a leak would have been “extremely unlikely”, citing the conclusion of a joint WHO-China mission to Wuhan in January.
At the same time, Chinese officials and state media have put forward an alternative theory that the virus could have escaped from the US military research lab in Fort Detrick, Maryland.
The nationalist tabloid Global Times said it had collected five million signatures from Chinese internet users for a petition to investigate the US lab.
Top officials have also bolstered theories that the virus may have been imported with frozen foods.
Yuan Zhiming, director of the National Biosafety Laboratory at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, told Thursday’s press conference that “no pathogens or accidents involving personnel infections have occurred” since the lab opened in 2018.
An important part of the lab leak theory was the Wuhan Institute’s decision to take its gene sequence and sample databases offline in 2019.
When asked about this decision, Yuan told reporters that the databases are currently only shared internally due to concerns about cyber-attacks.
China has faced accusations in recent days from the WHO that it failed to share the necessary raw data during the first phase of the investigation, with Tedros urging Beijing to “be transparent, be open and collaborate” in a second phase.
Tedros also called for more research on animal markets in and around Wuhan on Friday.
The UN health agency is under mounting pressure for a new, more in-depth investigation into how the disease that has killed more than four million people around the world first emerged.
The WHO was only able to send a team of independent, international experts to Wuhan in January, more than a year after Covid-19 first emerged there, to help Chinese counterparts investigate the origins of the pandemic.
Thursday’s comments come ahead of a weekend trip to China by US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman to address deteriorating ties between the two countries.
It is the top-level visit under President Joe Biden and comes amid tensions between the two powers over issues such as the origins of the pandemic, human rights and cybersecurity.
( Jowharwith AFP, REUTERS)