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From Beijing, Wrath and Conspiracies After U.S. Virus Report

From Beijing, Wrath and Conspiracies After U.S. Virus Report
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Chinese Embassy in the United States

Chinese Embassy in the United States

“Since the outbreak of COVID-19, China has taken an open, transparent and responsible attitude.”


On August 25, the U.S. intelligence community reportedly told President Joe Biden a months-long effort to pinpoint origins of the COVID-19 pandemic had proven inconclusive.

In May, Biden ordered an extensive probe into the beginnings of the outbreak that has killed millions globally. U.S. intelligence specifically looked at two competing theories — that the virus resulted naturally from human contact with an animal, or that the virus was leaked from a laboratory.

China reacted harshly, with its embassy in Washington, D.C., stating that the report “wrongly claims that China ‘continues to hinder the global investigation, resist sharing information and blame other countries’.”

“[T]he assertion of lack of transparency on the part of China is only an excuse for its politicizing and stigmatizing campaign,” the Chinese embassy statement read. “Since the outbreak of COVID-19, China has taken an open, transparent and responsible attitude. We have released information, shared the genome sequencing of the virus, and carried out international cooperation to fight the disease, all done at the earliest possible time.”

That is false. Available evidence shows that China has not always been an open book and at times dragged its feet or refused to hand over vital information.

Take the sharing of the genome sequence, or genetic map, of SARS-COV-2, the virus which causes COVID-19. According to The Associated Press, Chinese government labs only released the genome more than a week after a consortium of researchers did so first, on January 11, 2020.

AP reported that China “stalled” for at least two weeks in providing the World Health Organization (WHO) with “detailed data on patients and cases … all at a time when the outbreak arguably might have been dramatically slowed.”

In March, WHO Chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said data had been withheld from WHO investigators, who in early 2021 conducted a joint fact-finding study into the origins of COVID-19 with Chinese researchers in Wuhan, the city where COVID-19 emerged. China determined which scientists were allowed on that mission.

The New York Times reported in February that some WHO team members claimed China refused to hand over important data during that investigation. Peter Daszak, the only American allowed to participate in the fact-finding mission to Wuhan, disputed the New York Times report.

Daszak’s advocacy against the lab-leak theory has generated controversy, however, given that his organization, EcoHealth Alliance, gave the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) $600,000 in U.S. government funding to study coronaviruses in bats. The WIV has been at the center of the lab-leak speculation.

Another WHO fact-finding mission team member, Dominic Dwyer, told Reuters that Chinese authorities did not hand over raw patient data on 174 cases from the initial phase of the outbreak in Wuhan. Dwyer would not speculate on why that information was withheld, but did say the investigators felt they had received “much more data” than in the previous year.

China has said that data cannot be shared over privacy concerns. Others said China attempted to manipulate the WHO findings.

On August 12, The Washington Post reported that Peter Ben Embarek, who led the WHO team to Wuhan, told Danish documentarians that China had pressured the group to drop consideration of the lab-leak theory from its report.

In February 2020, China also created a task force to vet and approve the publication of all research and data regarding the origins of the pandemic.

Prior to the creation of that clearing house, Chinese scientists had written a report stating that the virus may have leaked from a laboratory near Wuhan’s Huanan Seafood Market, where early cases were detected in December 2020. That report was subsequently taken offline.

Several citizen journalists went missing after documenting the situation on the ground in Wuhan at the onset of the outbreak. One of them, Zhang Zhan, was convicted on the vague charge of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble” and sentenced to four years in prison.

Li Wenliang, a doctor at Wuhan Central Hospital who notified his medical school classmates in a WeChat group chat on December 30, 2019, about a SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome)-like virus in Wuhan, was summoned to appear before local security officials. They made him sign a confession for “publishing untrue statements about seven confirmed SARS cases at the Huanan Seafood Market.”

Li died in February 2020 after treating a patient infected with COVID-19 at Wuhan Central Hospital. His death sparked grief and outrage across China over the state of free speech.

In June, WHO chief Tedros called for a second round of investigations into the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic in China. That investigation, he said, should include “audits of relevant laboratories and research institutions operating in the area of the initial human cases identified in December 2019.”

That would include a biosafety level 2 research facility run by the Wuhan Center for Disease Control and Prevention, which had been moved on December 2, 2019, to a new to a new location near the Huanan market.

The WHO report noted "[s]moves can be disruptive for the operations of any laboratory."

A view of Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market in Wuhan on December 8, 2020. (Reuters)
A view of Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market in Wuhan on December 8, 2020. (Reuters)

Embarek likewise noted the timing of the move was "interesting."

"That’s the period where it all started,” the Washington Post cites him as saying. “We know that when you move a lab, it disturbs everything …That entire procedure is always a disruptive element in the daily work routine of a lab.”

China rejected Tedros' call for audits, calling on global health authorities instead to widen their net for tracing the pandemic’s origins.

While insisting the virus is natural in origin and demanding the search for its origins not be politicized, Chinese state media has intensified efforts to spread the groundless conspiracy theory that the pandemic may have originated at the U.S. military’s biolab in Fort Detrick, Maryland.

Correction: An earlier version of this article said that Dr Li Wenliang warned his colleagues in early December 2019 about a SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome)-like virus in Wuhan. Li, in fact, notified his medical school classmates about the virus in a WeChat group chat on December 30, 2019. regrets the error.