China is rejecting a plan submitted by the World Health Organization to dig deeper into the origins of the coronavirus that caused the pandemic.
Zeng Yixin, the vice minister of the National Health Commission, said he was “rather taken aback” that the world is curious about the origins of the virus.
“It is impossible for us to accept such an origin-tracing plan,” he said at a news conference called to address the COVID-19 origins issue.
He called the lab-leak theory a “rumor” that doesn’t make sense and goes against science.
China believes the West wants to blame it for the pandemic, which resulted in trillions of dollars in economic damage. Zeng accused the rest of the world of “politicizing” the origins issue.
Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the director-general of WHO, acknowledged last week that there had been a “premature push” after the first phase of the study to rule out the theory that the virus might have escaped from a Chinese government lab in Wuhan, the city where the disease was first detected in late 2019.
Most experts don’t think a lab leak is the likely cause. The question is whether the possibility is so remote that it should be dropped, or whether it merits further study.
The director-general of the WHO believes there is merit in continuing the investigation. Most real scientists want to continue the investigation. Even many scientists who cite the probability that the coronavirus naturally occurred believe a further study of the origins is useful.
The only people who don’t want to study the origins of the coronavirus any further are in the Chinese Communist government.
Zeng said the Wuhan lab has no virus that can directly infect humans and noted that the WHO team concluded that a lab leak was highly unlikely. He added that speculation that staff and graduate students at the lab had been infected and might have started the spread of the virus in the city was untrue.
Yuan Zhiming, the director of the biosafety lab at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, said they had not stored or studied the new coronavirus before the outbreak. “I want to emphasize that …. the Wuhan Institute of Virology has never designed, made or leaked the novel coronavirus,” he said.
“In the next step, I think animal tracing should still be the priority direction. It is the most valuable field for our efforts,” Liang Wannian, who headed the Chinese side, said at Thursday’s news conference.
To date, various teams have examined 80,000 animals to determine if the coronavirus had made the leap from bats to an intermediate animal. It took 14 years to determine that the original SARS virus made the jump from bats to civets and then to humans, so not finding an intermediate species as of yet doesn’t say much.
Origin investigations are complicated because outbreaks among animals that aren’t the main hosts of a particular virus, such as civets in the case of SARS, are often sporadic. Researchers must find the right animal before it dies or clears the infection. And, even if the animal tests positive, viruses found in saliva, faeces or blood are often degraded, making it difficult to sequence the pathogen’s whole genome.
Scientists have made some progress since the pandemic began, however. For example, a report, posted to the preprint server bioRxiv on 27 May, suggests that RmYN02, a coronavirus in bats in southern China, might be more closely related to SARS-CoV-2 than RATG13 is4.
The strongest evidence for a lab leak is the Chinese government’s inexplicable reluctance to allow a full and complete investigation of the origins of the coronavirus by giving total access to every scrap of paper, every patient, every scientist and researcher, who had anything to do with studying bat coronaviruses in Wuhan.
Only after their government cooperates with the international scientific community and is fully transparent will the story fully be told.