Politicising the origins of COVID-19 would hamper further investigations and undermine global efforts to curb the pandemic, the Chinese embassy in the United States said after President Joe Biden ordered a review of US intelligence about how and where the virus first emerged.
“Some political forces have been fixated on political manipulation and (the) blame game,” the embassy in Washington, DC said in a statement on its website on Wednesday evening.
The World Health Organization (WHO) is preparing to begin a second phase of studies into the origins of COVID-19, and China has been under pressure to give investigators more access amid allegations that SARS-CoV-2 leaked from a research laboratory in the city of Wuhan, where the first COVID-19 cases emerged in late 2019.
China has repeatedly denied the lab was responsible, accusing the US and other countries of trying to distract from their own failures to contain the virus.
Biden said on Wednesday that US intelligence agencies were divided about whether COVID-19 “emerged from human contact with an infected animal or from a laboratory accident”.
Earlier this week, it was revealed that US agencies were examining reports that three researchers at the Wuhan lab became so ill in November 2019 that they sought hospital care.
“We are starting to see a lot of converging streams of evidence that there hasn’t been transparency from the Chinese government,’ Dr Amesh Adalja, an expert in biosecurity and emerging infectious diseases told Al Jazeera. “We are hearing about people who worked at the Wuhan Institute of Virology becoming sick with an illness, we know that this has been spreading since November (2019) and we have seen the Chinese government be very reticent to allow the press to investigate the origins of this virus so I think that raises questions about getting the Chinese government to come to terms with what may have happened in the early days of the pandemic.”
Yanzhong Huang, a senior fellow for global health with the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, DC, said China’s lack of openness was a key factor behind the resurgence of the lab leak theory.
“There’s nothing really new there to prove the hypothesis,” he said. “In the investigation of the origins of the pandemic, it is really important to have transparency in order to build trust in the investigation results.”
‘A comprehensive study’
China has stepped up efforts to control the narrative surrounding the pandemic after successfully suppressing the virus in Wuhan, the central Chinese city where what was then a mysterious new viral pneumonia was first detected towards the end of 2019.
Whistle-blowers, journalists and the families of those who died have come under pressure. Dr Li Wenliang, an ophthalmologist who was one of the first to warn the public about the virus, was detained by police for spreading “rumours”. In December, citizen journalist Zhang Zhan, a former lawyer, was accused of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble” and sentenced to four years in prison for her work in the early days of the outbreak. Others also face trial on similar charges.
The Chinese embassy said it supports “a comprehensive study of all early cases of COVID-19 found worldwide and a thorough investigation into some secretive bases and biological laboratories all over the world.”
The Global Times tabloid, part of the ruling Communist Party’s People’s Daily newspaper group, said late on Wednesday that if the “lab leak theory” was to be further investigated, the US should also allow investigators into its own facilities, including the lab at Fort Detrick.
“Very clearly they are trying to internationalise their way out of the jam they are in,” said Jamie Metzl, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council think-tank, who has been campaigning for a new independent investigation.
A joint China-WHO study published in March said that it was highly improbable that SARS-CoV-2 leaked from the lab, adding that it most likely spread from bats to humans via an as yet unidentified intermediary species.
China has also continued to point to the possibility that COVID-19 originated elsewhere and entered the country via an infection carried on frozen food or through wildlife trade networks in southeastern China.
“The pandemic started in China,” Metzl said. “Let’s start with a full investigation there and expand as necessary. In short, this [statement from the embassy] is an outrageous insult to every person who has died from this terrible tragedy and their families.”
Huang of CFR said further investigations into the origins of COVID-19 were at an “impasse”.
“Ideally you want China to be more cooperative and more transparent,” Huang said. “But now the issue has become so politicised, with the stakes of the investigation so high.”