China said on Thursday that a proposal by the World Health Organization (WHO) to examine Chinese laboratories as part of the ongoing investigation into the origins of the coronavirus pandemic showed “disrespect” and “arrogance towards science”.
Last week, the UN health agency said a second phase of the international probe should include audits of Chinese laboratories, amid growing pressure from the United States for an investigation into a biotechnology laboratory in Wuhan.
The proposal outlined by WHO Chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus included “reviews of relevant laboratories and research institutions operating in the field of the first human cases identified in December 2019” – with reference 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.”
Far mocked as a right-wing conspiracy theory and strongly rejected by Beijing, the idea that Covid-19 may have emerged from a lab leak has gained momentum.
Beijing has repeatedly insisted that a leak would have been “extremely unlikely”, citing the conclusion that a joint WHO-Chinese mission came to Wuhan in January.
At the same time, Chinese officials and state media have been pushing for an alternative theory that the virus could have escaped from the US military research laboratory in Fort Detrick, Maryland.
The nationalist tabloid Global Times said it had collected five million signatures from Chinese web users on a petition to investigate the US laboratory.
Top officials have also reinforced 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 “no pathogen leakage or staff infection accidents have occurred” since the laboratory opened in 2018.
An important part of the lab leak theory has been focused on the Wuhan Institute’s decision to take its gene sequence and sample databases offline in 2019.
When asked about this decision, Yuantold reported that the databases are currently only shared internally due to cyberattack issues.
In recent days, China has faced accusations from the WHO that it had not shared the necessary raw data during the first phase of the investigation, in which Tedros called on Beijing to “be transparent, open and cooperate” in a second phase.
Tedros on Friday also called for more studies of animal markets in and around Wuhan.
The UN Health Bureau has been under intense pressure for a new, more in-depth investigation into how the disease that 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 appeared 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 highest-ranking visit under President Joe Biden and comes amid tensions between the two powers on issues including the origins of the pandemic, human rights and cyber security.
(FRANCE 24 with AFP, REUTERS)