Renewed interest in coronavirus origin hypothesis after criticism over WHO inquiry and arrival of new US administration.
Major state media outlets in China rushed to scrub references to a Swiss scientist from their news articles after Switzerland said the ‘expert’ was a fictitious character whose statements about the COVID-19 pandemic investigation were false.
The supposed biologist, identified as Wilson Edwards, wrote a post in July on Facebook criticising the United States position on the World Health Organization (WHO) probe in China.
Edwards was quoted as saying that contrary to reports, it was not China but the US which had been politicising the investigation.
He went on to claim that US President Joe Biden’s administration was trying to reclaim its influence in the WHO, after his predecessor Donald Trump withdrew US membership from the international body in April 2020 as the pandemic began.
“I have the impression that WHO’s new plans, which include lab audits, are largely politically motivated,” Edwards was quoted as writing on the social media platform.
State-owned Chinese publications, including the China Daily and Global Times, quickly seized on Edwards’ supposed statement – a reflection of Beijing’s own stand rejecting more attempts by the US and the WHO to continue investigations in Wuhan, where the pandemic first began and home to two high-level biosecurity research labs.
A Global Times article highlighted the “claim of intimidation” by Edwards, while a People’s Daily opinion headline cited “US attempts” to overturn the WHO report on COVID, using the same scientist.
On Tuesday, the Swiss embassy in Beijing issued a statement saying there was no Swiss citizen by the name of Wilson Edwards, adding that officials could not find any academic articles written by the author.
“In the last several days, a large number of press articles and social media posts citing an alleged Swiss biologist have been published in China. While we appreciate the attention on our country, the Embassy of Switzerland must unfortunately inform the Chinese public that this news is false,” it added.
Looking for Wilson Edwards, alleged 🇨🇭 biologist, cited in press and social media in China over the last several days. If you exist, we would like to meet you! But it is more likely that this is a fake news, and we call on the Chinese press and netizens to take down the posts. pic.twitter.com/U6ku5EGibm
— Embassy of Switzerland in Beijing (@SwissEmbChina) August 10, 2021
Following the Swiss embassy’s statement, Global Times took down the article, while another piece published in the China Daily edited out the fake quotes.
The protracted probe into the origin of COVID-19, which was first reported in the Chinese city of Wuhan, has become increasingly contentious.
Washington is pressing the WHO to look closer into a theory that the virus leaked from a Wuhan laboratory, and return to China.
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.
In March, a joint WHO-China study on the origins of COVID-19 said that transmission of the virus from bats to humans through another animal is the most likely scenario, and that a lab leak was “extremely unlikely”.
The findings were largely as expected but left many questions unanswered. The authors proposed further research in every area except the lab leak hypothesis.
The report’s release has been repeatedly delayed, raising questions about whether the Chinese side was trying to skew the conclusions to prevent blame for the pandemic falling on China.
In July, the WHO said the second stage of an investigation into the origins of coronavirus should include further studies in China and lab “audits”.
WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus proposed five priorities for the next phase of the investigation including a focus on “studies prioritising geographic areas with the earliest indication of circulation of SARS CoV-2”.
China, however, rejected the proposal saying researchers should instead prioritise the “very likely” possibility that the virus originated in animals and expand their work to other countries around the world.
Zeng Yixin, vice-minister of China’s National Health Commission, told the State Council Information Office he was “surprised” that the WHO team proposed to return to places in the central city of Wuhan that they visited earlier this year and also investigate the hypothesis that it leaked from a lab.
Zeng said such a move was “not scientific”.
Liang Wannian, who leads the Chinese scientists in the WHO team, dismissed questions over China’s transparency, saying it was not possible to share the raw data from the earliest patients publicly, or allow for it to be copied because of privacy concerns.