China Sees WHO COVID-19 Origin Report as Exoneration of Lab. WHO Disagrees.

Beijing has vehemently denied the Wuhan Institute of Virology was the origin of the COVID-19 pandemic but the report officials often cite as an exoneration of the lab is the same one that the World Health Organization sees as inconclusive.

At the heart of Beijing's defense of the lab is a report from a WHO-China joint mission that found the most likely explanation for the COVID-19 pandemic is that the virus jumped from animals to humans. While it determined the lab to be an unlikely origin point, WHO Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus declined to eliminate any option as a possibility and on Friday, called for China to allow investigators to audit labs and markets.

"We expect China to support this next phase of the scientific process by sharing all relevant data in a spirit of transparency. Equally, we expect all Member States to support the scientific process by refraining from politicizing it," Ghebreyesus said on Friday.

China suffered a "black eye" during the SARS outbreak in 2002 and 2003 when it covered up information and attempted to hide the outbreak from the world, according to Dr. Gregory Gray, a professor at Duke University. In the nearly two decades since, China's ramped up its public health infrastructure and in the early days of the pandemic, received praise from the WHO for being transparent.

Beijing often reminds the world that they allowed a team of international experts to investigate the origin in China for three weeks as part of the WHO-China joint mission. Their research included speaking with some people who work at the Wuhan Institute of Virology but China's ability to be forthcoming has been met with skepticism and some have questioned how much of the truth investigators were privy to.

china who report origin covid-19
Beijing officials often cite a report from the WHO-China joint mission as being a conclusion on the possibility that the Wuhan lab was the source of the pandemic, but WHO sees a need for further studies. WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus is seen here at a press conference organized by the Geneva Association of United Nations Correspondents on July 3, 2020. Fabrice Coffrini/Pool/AFP/Getty Images

Although disappointed with delays in allowing experts into China, Ghebreyesus expressed gratitude to Chinese officials for cooperating with the first phase of the investigation. However, he noted that the team expressed to him that they had difficulty accessing raw data and stressed the need for future studies.

"Let me say clearly that as far as WHO is concerned all hypotheses remain on the table," Ghebreyesus said in March. "We have not yet found the source of the virus, and we must continue to follow the science and leave no stone unturned as we do."

Despite the head of the agency seeing a need for further studies into all hypotheses, Zhao Lijian, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson, has referred to the report as an "official conclusion." Chinese officials have made the reference on at least three other occasions and it's often followed by unfounded calls for an investigation into Fort Detrick in the United States.

When asked about the WHO's proposed second phase study into the COVID-19 origin, Zhao reiterated that the report had "clear conclusions," that should be "respected" in future studies. He also called the proposal "at odds" with China's position.

Once considered a fringe conspiracy theory, the possibility that COVID-19 originated in a lab has gained momentum. Several legislators have called for further studies into the hypothesis and accused China of covering up the leak.

The U.S. Intelligence Community also found the lab leak to be the less likely possibility but President Joe Biden instructed the group to "redouble" their efforts to bring the world to a clearer conclusion and identify questions China has to answer.

Beijing accused the U.S. of capitalizing on the pandemic to criticize China in a political power play.

"The US has been denying the science-based conclusion of the WHO joint team of experts and has drawn on its intelligence apparatus to conduct the so-called investigation of origins. It also fabricated and spread the rumor and lie that the virus came from a lab leak in Wuhan and tried to muffle the objective, just and rational voice from the science community," Zhao said on Wednesday.

Zhao wouldn't comment on whether China would cooperate with additional investigations but if they do, it's likely to come with many stipulations. Although easier to investigate the origin with China on board, if they're not willing to cooperate, some scientists still believe an investigation can happen thanks to global samples and conversations agencies had with the Wuhan Institute of Virology.