COVID Origins Investigators Not Allowed to Take Info Out of China

Experts investigating the origins of COVID-19 were not allowed to take some information about the virus out of China because of privacy concerns, it has been reported—despite growing calls for more transparency from Beijing.

The Chinese state-run newspaper Global Times reported on Friday that Foreign Minister Wang Yi said international experts from the China-World Health Organization joint mission had "accessed substantive data and info and fully understood that some info could not be copied or taken out of China due to privacy issues."

The minister urged "all parties to respect the opinions and conclusions of scientists and not to politicize them, and said next-step study on COVID-19 origins should be led by member states through consultation and based on China-WHO joint study report."

Wang was responding to comments by Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director general of the World Health Organization, on Thursday. The WHO head urged China to hand over vital COVID-19 data and co-operate with the investigation openly and transparently.

Cases of COVID-19 were first recorded in Wuhan at the end of 2019. In recent months, the theory that the pandemic somehow originated in a laboratory in the Wuhan Institute of Virology—perhaps through the virus being engineered before accidentally leaking from the building—is gaining momentum again. The idea was initially considered a racist conspiracy theory but, in May, President Joe Biden ordered a new Wuhan lab leak investigation.

On June 2, a former head of British intelligence service MI6 said he believed China had destroyed any possible evidence that COVID-19 leaked from a lab in Wuhan.

On Thursday, Tedros said the initial WHO probe into the virus' origins—which described the notion that a lab leak had caused the outbreak as "extremely unlikely"—had been "premature."

"I was a lab technician myself, I'm an immunologist, and I have worked in the lab, and lab accidents happen," the WHO head said. "It's common."

China has been defiant throughout the investigation, arguing that attempts to link the origins of the pandemic to a lab in Wuhan are politically motivated.

Beijing has also suggested that the outbreak might have started abroad. At the WHO's annual meeting of health ministers in the spring, China said the investigation into COVID-19's origins should continue—in other countries.

On Friday, a senior Chinese epidemiologist said the United States should be a priority in the next phase of investigations into the virus's origins, after a study showed that the disease could have been present there as early as December 2019.

Many scientists believe the coronavirus originated in bats, but exactly how it jumped into humans—via another animal or some other way—has not yet been determined.

The WHO chief said "checking what happened, especially in our labs, is important" to nail down if the pandemic had any laboratory links.

"We need information, direct information, on what the situation of this lab was before and at the start of the pandemic," Tedros said, adding that China's cooperation was critical. "If we get full information, we can exclude [the lab connection]."

Tedros has previously lauded Beijing for its responsiveness and transparency throughout the pandemic.

However, according to an Associated Press report last year, other WHO officials have been frustrated by Chinese colleagues' unwillingness to share details about the early stages of the outbreak.

Newsweek has contacted the Chinese Foreign Ministry for comment.

Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus
WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said the second year of the COVID-19 pandemic would be "far more deadly than the first" during a media briefing on Friday, July 16. On Thursday, he urged China to hand over vital data to experts investigating the origins of the virus. @WHO/ Twitter