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China slams ‘arrogant’ WHO plan to investigate labs over COVID origin

Wuhan lab denies any leaks; White House criticizes Beijing’s reaction as ‘irresponsible and frankly dangerous,’ saying this is not a time to be ‘stonewalling’

A view of the P4 lab inside the Wuhan Institute of Virology is seen after a visit by the World Health Organization team in Wuhan in China's Hubei province on Wednesday, Feb. 3, 2021. (AP Photo/Ng Han Guan)
A view of the P4 lab inside the Wuhan Institute of Virology is seen after a visit by the World Health Organization team in Wuhan in China's Hubei province on Wednesday, Feb. 3, 2021. (AP Photo/Ng Han Guan)

BEIJING (AFP) — China on Thursday said a WHO proposal to audit Chinese labs as part of further investigation into the origins of the coronavirus pandemic showed “disrespect” and “arrogance towards science.”

Last week, the World Health Organization said a second stage of the international probe should include audits of Chinese labs, amid increasing pressure from the United States for an investigation into a biotech lab in Wuhan.

The proposal outlined by WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus included “audits of relevant laboratories and research institutions operating in the area of the initial human cases identified in December 2019” — referring to the Chinese city of Wuhan.

But China’s vice health minister Zeng Yixin told reporters Thursday that he was “extremely surprised” by the plan, which he said showed “disrespect for common sense and arrogance towards science.”

The United States criticized the Chinese stance, which White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki described as “irresponsible and frankly dangerous.”

“It’s not a time to be stonewalling,” she added.

Long derided as a right-wing conspiracy theory and vehemently rejected by Beijing, the idea that Covid-19 may have emerged from a lab leak has been gaining momentum.

Zeng Yixin, Vice Minister of China’s National Health Commission, speaks at a press conference at the State Council Information Office in Beijing, Thursday, July 22, 2021. Zeng said Thursday he was taken aback by the World Health Organization’s plan for the second phase of a COVID-19 origins study. (AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein)

Beijing has repeatedly insisted that a leak would have been “extremely unlikely”, citing the conclusion reached by a joint WHO-Chinese mission to Wuhan in January.

At the same time, Chinese officials and state media have pushed an alternate theory that the virus could have escaped from the US military research lab at Fort Detrick, Maryland.

Nationalist tabloid Global Times said it had collected five million signatures from Chinese web users on a petition to investigate the US lab.

Top officials have also amplified theories that the virus may have been imported with frozen food.

No accidents

Yuan Zhiming, director of the National Biosafety Laboratory at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, told Thursday’s press conference “no pathogen leakage or staff infection accidents have occurred” since the lab opened in 2018.

Zeng hit back at what he called “rumours” about the lab, insisting that it had “never carried out gain-of-function research on coronaviruses, nor is there a so-called manmade virus.”

His comments were in reference to the type of research that has featured heavily in theories about a possible lab leak.

China has in recent days faced accusations from the WHO that it had not shared the necessary raw data during the first phase of the investigation, with Tedros urging Beijing to “be transparent, to be open and cooperate” on a second phase.

In this Monday, May 24, 2021 file photo, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director General of the World Health Organization (WHO), speaks at the WHO headquarters, in Geneva, Switzerland. The head of the World Health Organization said Thursday, July 15 that he is asking China to be more transparent as scientists search for the origins of the coronavirus and acknowledged it was premature to rule out that the pandemic may have been linked to a laboratory leak. (Laurent Gillieron/Keystone via AP, File)

Tedros on Friday also called for more studies of animal markets in and around Wuhan.

The UN health agency has been under intensifying pressure for a new, more in-depth investigation of how the disease that has killed more than four million people around the world first emerged.

The WHO was only able to send a team of independent, international experts to Wuhan in January, more than a year after Covid-19 first surfaced there, to help Chinese counterparts probe the pandemic’s origins.

Thursday’s comments come ahead of a weekend trip to China by US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman to address deteriorating ties between the two countries.

It is the highest-level visit under President Joe Biden and comes amid tensions between the two powers over issues including the pandemic’s origins, human rights and cybersecurity.

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