Jitters in China as WHO counts down to Covid-19 origins report release?

Simone McCarthy
·4-min read

As the World Health Organization prepares to release a report from a mission investigating the origins of Covid-19, there are signs of concern in China about what it might say.

Over the weekend, nationalist tabloid Global Times cited an unnamed Chinese expert who took part in the mission as saying politics overseas could shape the report’s conclusions.

“We can feel that international experts are facing political pressure from some quarters,” the expert was quoted as saying, without elaborating. “We’re concerned that the final report may deviate from the previous consensus.”

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The report is the result of a 28-day mission in which a WHO-led team of international experts worked with Chinese scientists in the central Chinese city of Wuhan, where the first known outbreak of the disease occurred.

The mission ended on February 9 and the WHO said earlier this month that the final report was expected to be released in the week of March 15. The WHO backed off plans for an earlier summary report.

Yanzhong Huang, a senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, said the Chinese media coverage could be a sign of jitters in Beijing about the upcoming report.

“This seems to suggest that they are not so confident that the WHO was going to release a report that reflects the consensus that they had in early February,” he said, referring to a joint press conference from Wuhan, where the scientists said it was “extremely unlikely” that the virus escaped from a local laboratory.

“If the final report even indicates that the lab-escape hypothesis cannot be ruled out, this is going to deal a blow to [China’s] official narrative.”

Li Keqiang says China will continue to work with WHO on coronavirus origins

On March 16, the WHO said the report would likely come out the following week, instead of that week as expected.

A 300-page report of the mission’s findings in English was delivered on Wednesday to the Chinese experts who took part in the mission, according to Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian.

“Whether the report will be released next week depends on the discussions between Chinese and foreign experts,” Zhao said on Friday.

The WHO did not respond to a request for comment on whether the release date and final content would be a joint decision between the Chinese and international teams. The UN body has consistently said the document will be a “joint report”.

Last week the head of the Chinese team, former National Health Commission senior official Liang Wannian, stressed there was a consensus on the main findings back in February, when both parties had “unanimously” agreed the lab leak theory was extremely unlikely.

“Future virus origins-tracing missions will no longer be focused on this area, unless there is new evidence,” Global Times quoted Liang as saying in his first in-depth interview on the mission.

But after the trip, Peter Ben Embarek, the WHO official leading the international team, said the experts did not have permission for a full laboratory audit.

WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus also said that “all hypotheses” remained on the table.

WHO readies Covid-19 origins report as demands grow for more transparency on China investigation

Wang Yiwei, from Renmin University of China’s school of international studies, said the Chinese team might be concerned that the findings in the report could be politicised or come with a presumption of guilt.

“The reason [for doing this work] is to avoid having this happen again and to prepare for the future,” he said, adding this would be accomplished through science, not politics.

As tensions between the United States and China rose last year, the origins of the virus became a political football, with the US blaming China for the pandemic and officials in the former Trump administration making unsubstantiated claims that the virus could have come from the Wuhan Institute of Virology. Chinese officials also suggested the virus could have emerged elsewhere and been imported into China.

China has repeatedly said it cooperated openly with the WHO mission, though it had released little information about its research into the disease’s origins before the mission.

The US and Britain have questioned China’s transparency during the WHO visit, and several members of the international team said they did not have access all the data they would have liked.

Huang, of the Council on Foreign Relations, said it remained to be seen if discussions about the report’s contents led to further delay.

“This coming week will be interesting to watch. If they don’t release it, there might be an issue there,” he said.

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