China briefs European envoys on WHO coronavirus origin quest

Rachel Zhang
·3-min read

There is no evidence suggesting either bats or pangolins were the origin host of the novel coronavirus, one of China’s top health experts told European diplomats in Beijing last week.

Briefing envoys on a China-WHO investigation into the source of the pathogen, Liang Wannian, one of the Chinese members of the joint team, said on Friday that other animals could be the natural host of the virus that causes Covid-19.

The meeting comes amid growing scepticism in Europe about China’s “values” and response to the pandemic.

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Liang was part of the investigation with World Health Organization (WHO) experts who visited Wuhan, the central Chinese city where the disease was first detected, for 28 days in January and February.

At the Beijing briefing hosted by the Chinese foreign ministry, Liang also said the WHO experts agreed it was highly unlikely the coronavirus was transmitted to humans from a lab.

China has been criticised for the lack of transparency in the early stage of the pandemic outbreak, especially for the three-week delay between when the virus was first announced and when Chinese authorities acknowledged the disease was spreading through human-to-human contact.

Officials from the administration of former US president Donald Trump claimed last year the virus could have been leaked from a laboratory in Wuhan that studied bat viruses. Beijing repeatedly suggested that although the disease was first reported in China, it might have emerged elsewhere.

While expressing its support for the WHO’s investigation of the origins of the virus in China, Beijing said such research should also be conducted in other countries.

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Liang said the joint research with the WHO found there were coronaviruses in bats and pangolins with very similar gene sequences as the novel coronavirus, but it was not enough to prove they were the origin host of the novel coronavirus.

The Huanan seafood wholesale market in Wuhan – which was linked to a number of early cases – might have been the outbreak site of the disease and an amplifier of Covid-19 pandemic, Liang said.

Citing the results of the WHO-China joint research group, Liang said the novel coronavirus was “very likely” transmitted to humans through intermediary hosts, “possibly” directly transmitted to humans or through cold chain foods, and “extremely unlikely” to be transmitted through laboratories.

Previously, while investigating in Wuhan, the WHO team said the virus had “most likely” come from a bat and it was “extremely unlikely” the virus spread because of a laboratory leak.

Zhou Yongsheng, an international relations professor at China Foreign Affairs University in Beijing, said the briefing to European diplomats was to further explain China’s position on the origin of the virus following the WHO’s recent report on it.

“As the WHO recently released an investigation report on China’s Covid-19 inspection, the Chinese government would like to further explain China’s stance on the issue to Western countries through this briefing, to reduce their misunderstandings about China.”

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Wu Xiangning, social science assistant professor at University of Macau, said the briefing supposedly targeted two things.

“One is that Europe recently criticised WHO for its ‘partial belief’ in China on pandemic-relevant matters and its ineffective control measures for Covid-19, both at the beginning and a year after the first outbreak,” she said.

Wu said the other issue China hoped to address with the briefing by Liang was “the discriminatory remarks against China based on ideology made by [Charles] Michel, president of the European Council”. Wu was referring to Michel’s comment last week that China and Russia had “less desirable values” than the EU.

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