A Chinese scientist on the joint international team investigating the origins of Covid-19 has accused WHO director general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus of being “extremely irresponsible” for pursuing the “lab leak” theory.
The rare public display of discontent – voiced by an anonymous expert and reported in local state media – showed how Beijing subtly protested against the World Health Organization’s pursuit of a hypothesis that China preferred to abandon while leaving room not to bruise ties with the UN agency.
The issue might potentially sour the relationship between China and the world health body but would not fundamentally change it, an observer said.
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China has been firmly pushing back against any suggestions that a leak from a high-level biosecurity lab in the central Chinese city of Wuhan started the Covid-19 pandemic. It has also insisted China was very cooperative and transparent with the investigation.
Foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said on Wednesday afternoon that all parties should respect science and the opinions and conclusions of scientists, and the WHO in particular, should play an exemplary role.
Last month, following the release of the report by the Chinese and international experts on their 28-day mission to study how Covid-19 erupted in Wuhan, Tedros expressed concern that the international team had difficulty gaining access to raw data during the visit early this year and that the team was too quick to dismiss the laboratory leak theory.
He told member states during a meeting in late March that the laboratory leak required further investigation, potentially via additional missions involving specialist experts he was ready to deploy.
“Tedros’ remarks were extremely irresponsible,” state-owned broadcaster Hubei Media Group reported, citing an unidentified Chinese expert from the mission. There were 17 Chinese experts in the joint mission. Hubei province administers Wuhan, where the investigation mission took place.
The unnamed expert expressed “surprise” and “discontent” that Tedros made such comments after scientific facts and expert consensus showed the laboratory leak hypothesis was unfounded, the report said.
“As an authoritative body in the field of global public health, the WHO should have shown more respect for science, held science in awe and taken the lead in maintaining the authority of the report. However, director general Tedros disregarded the experts’ painstaking research and scientific consensus, which should not be the WHO’s position,” the expert was quoted as saying.
The expert said Tedros’ remarks were being used by “forces with ulterior motives” to attack the report, although did not elaborate. The expert said foreign counterparts in the mission were under pressure from the United States and senior officials from the WHO in their exchange. Such remarks by Tedros might jeopardise future coronavirus tracing work, the expert warned.
“There are already forces with ulterior motives seizing on the director general’s statement to question the authority and scientific validity of the report. The joint experts are very worried about it, and even discontent,” the expert said. “If the next phase of global virus origin tracing is thus stalled because of this, then the WHO should also be held responsible.”
Tedros, who prompted criticism for publicly praising China for its handling of the Covid-19 outbreak after his visit to the country in January 2020, has been caught in the crossfire between China and the US over the handling of the outbreak during the early stages.
He was personally attacked by then US president Donald Trump, who accused the WHO of being China-centric, writing in an open letter to Tedros that the WHO must show its independence from China.
The accusations by the anonymous expert was a reversal of China’s long-time call for supporting the WHO, though Tedros had been consistent in keeping the lab leak theory hypothesis open.
Liang Wannian, leader of the Chinese side of the investigation team, has said repeatedly that biological samples and data could not be taken out of the country or photographed, citing China’s privacy law, but that international experts could view the database and materials just as much as Chinese experts could.
Beijing’s floating of views through unofficial channels and with anonymous sources is not an uncommon method. An anonymous expert from the Chinese team told the Global Times last month he was “surprised” after the WHO announced the release of the investigation report without telling China first and was concerned the report would be a “deviation from consensus”. The report was eventually released later than the WHO’s original announcement.
Yanzhong Huang, a senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations, a New York-based think tank, said that even though it was unclear whether the expert’s view represented the official stance of the Chinese government, publication by a state media outlet showed it had received official approval.
“I feel it’s not so much indication of China’s displeasure of what Tedros said as China’s frustration that WHO is siding with the US and some Western countries to pressure China,” Huang said, adding that China had repeatedly indicated the origin tracing had become a political issue rather than a scientific one.
This display of discontent could sour the China-WHO relationship and it remained to be seen how damaging it was, Huang said.
“I don’t think China will act like Trump [by starting to exit the WHO] because it would undermine China’s image in the global health leadership. I don’t think this will fundamentally change the relationship between China and the WHO,” Huang said. “China seeks to play that leadership role in the world health governance and they count on the WHO’s support in critical events.”
But the episode was likely to have an impact on the future of tracing the coronavirus origins in China, Huang added.
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