China Refuses to Cooperate on WHO Plan to Trace COVID Origins: 'Impossible'

China has rejected the next phase of the World Health Organization's coronavirus origin studies, with a senior health official saying it would be "impossible" for Beijing to agree to a plan that proposes a reinvestigation of Wuhan.

Zeng Yixin, vice minister of China's National Health Commission, led a press conference in Beijing on Thursday in which he expressed shock at the WHO's intention to look into research facilities including the often spotlighted Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV).

"To be honest, I was quite surprised when I first saw the WHO's phase-two origin-tracing plan," Zeng said, "because it includes as one of its research priorities the hypothesis that China had violated laboratory procedures, leading to virus leakage."

"From this point, I feel it has a disrespect for common sense and reveals an arrogance toward science," he said, adding: "It is impossible for us to accept such an origin-tracing plan."

Zeng urged the United Nations health body to consider the findings in the phase-one WHO-China study, which stated in March that a "lab leak" was an "extremely unlikely pathway" for SARS-CoV-2—the virus that causes COVID-19—to have originated.

The WHO team, which spent a month in the country, was given access to "every department" and person its members requested, said Zeng. The WHO "should not reexamine questions which have already yielded clear conclusions," he added.

The health official said China had submitted its own proposal to the WHO for the second phase of origin studies, which he said should take place in "multiple countries and locations" around the world.

Yuan Zhiming, a senior researcher at WIV, denied allegations that SARS-CoV-2 had been studied at the P4 laboratory in central China. Reports about three of its researchers falling ill in November 2019 were "made up," Yuan said while requesting the names of the scientists in question.

The press conference hosted by China's State Council Information Office was called specially to respond to the WHO's new origin-tracing plans announced last week.

On July 16, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO director-general, announced a five-point plan that included studies of the geographic area where SARS-CoV-2 was first detected—Wuhan—as well as neighboring areas where SARS viruses had been found in animals.

He proposed studies of "animal markets in and around Wuhan, including continuing studies on animals sold at the Huanan wholesale market," where early reports indicated exotic wildlife had been available.

The WHO chief also wanted "audits of relevant laboratories and research institutions operating in the area of the initial human cases identified in December 2019."

He called origin tracing "a scientific exercise that must be kept free from politics." The WHO "expect[s] China to support this next phase of the scientific process by sharing all relevant data in a spirit of transparency," he said.

"Equally, we expect all member states to support the scientific process by refraining from politicizing it," he added.

On the same day, Tedros told reporters there had been a "premature push" to rule out a laboratory leak as one of the origin hypotheses. He also said WHO experts sent to China lacked access to certain "raw data."

China should be "transparent, open and cooperate," Tedros said, "especially on the information, raw data that we asked for at the early days of the pandemic."

On the lab leak theory, he added: "I was a lab technician myself. I'm an immunologist, and I have worked in the lab, and lab accidents happen. It's common."

"We need information, direct information, on what the situation of this lab was before and at the start of the pandemic," said Tedros, who argued that only "full information" could help conclusively exclude WIV from the next stage of origin studies.

At Thursday's press event in Beijing, Liang Wannian, the lead Chinese scientist on the WHO-China team, confirmed that certain patient data had been kept from the visiting experts over privacy issues.

The Chinese government has pushed back against claims that the coronavirus could have originated in a lab in Wuhan, describing the line of inquiry as a conspiracy theory. Beijing also expressed opposition to President Joe Biden's announcement in May when he had asked the U.S. Intelligence Community to reinvestigate evidence regarding the theory.

More recently, Chinese officials have been pushing for a WHO investigation into a U.S. military laboratory in Maryland, claiming the facility is among the possible origins of SARS-CoV-2.

China Rejects WHO COVID Studies Plan
File photo: Zeng Yixin, vice minister of China’s National Health Commission, speaks at a press conference in Beijing on December 31, 2020. Zeng Yixin expressed shock at the WHO's intention to look into research facilities including the often spotlighted Wuhan Institute of Virology. Leo RAMIREZ/AFP via Getty Images