China on Wednesday slammed its critics as “unethical” after the head of the World Health Organization (WHO) said it would continue to consider the hypothesis that the coronavirus that caused the COVID-19 pandemic leaked from a top-security virology lab in the central Chinese city of Wuhan.
Experts hired by the global health body to carry out a politically sensitive investigation of the origins of the pandemic had initially said that a leak from the lab was “extremely unlikely.”
But WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told reporters on Wednesday that “all hypotheses are open,” and that the theory warranted further investigation.
His comments followed the publication of a report into the origins of the pandemic, as 13 countries criticized a “lack of transparency” by China.
The report concluded that an animal origin for the coronavirus was likely, with another species possibly acting as the link to humans.
China has repeatedly sought to claim that the virus originated outside of its borders, being imported in frozen food.
Wuhan-based Zhang Hai, who has been campaigning for compensation for the families of early victims of the COVID-19 outbreak in the city, said the authorities should take responsibility for the fact that the pandemic emerged in Wuhan, and stop claiming it had been brought to China in frozen food packages.
“It’s pretty simple really,” Zhang said. “If it did come to China in frozen food, then why wasn’t there an outbreak overseas first? Why did the outbreak happen in China?”
“Now such an important question has become embroiled in the bureaucracy of the WHO, and now it hasn’t been properly investigated,” he said. “The WHO has no independence, and it has been reduced to the status of puppet [for China].”
“The families of the very large number of victims in Wuhan insist on compensation and a public apology, and on criminal prosecution for those officials who killed people by covering up what was happening,” he said.
Call for full access
The U.S. and 12 other countries issued a joint statement on Tuesday saying that expert-driven phase 2 studies were now crucial to understanding the origins of the current pandemic.
“It is critical for independent experts to have full access to all pertinent human, animal, and environmental data, research, and personnel involved in the early stages of the outbreak relevant to determining how this pandemic emerged,” the statement said.
Signed by Australia, Canada, Czechia, Denmark, Estonia, Israel, Japan, Latvia, Lithuania, Norway, the Republic of Korea, Slovenia, the United Kingdom, and the U.S., the statement called for a “robust, comprehensive, and expert-led mechanism” that respects the need for transparency and scientific integrity.
While the statement didn’t mention China directly, one of the WHO investigators had earlier said that Chinese officials refused to provide raw data on early COVID-19 cases to the team on its mission to Wuhan, a claim that was amplified by the WHO’s Tedros after the origins report was published.
China hit back on Wednesday, saying that the investigation had been “politicized.”
“This practice of politicizing the search for the origins of the virus is extremely unethical,” foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying told a regular news briefing in Beijing. She said the researchers had been given full access to the data they requested.
Meanwhile, report co-author Liang Wannian said researchers from both sides had access to the same data throughout the investigation.
“Of course, according to Chinese law, some data cannot be taken away or photographed, but when we were analyzing it together in Wuhan, everyone could see the database, the materials – it was all done together,” he said.
Asked about the allegations that only incomplete data was provided, Liang said no scientist ever had perfect information.
Reported by Fong Tak Ho for RFA’s Cantonese Service, and by Gao Feng for the Mandarin Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.