The WHO said last week a second stage of the probe should include audits of Chinese research centres amid increasing speculation about the lab leak theory and pressure from the US.
The proposal outlined by the health body 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 Wuhan.
China has slammed a WHO proposal to audit its labs as part of further investigations into the origins of Covid-19
But China’s vice health minister Zeng Yixin told reporters today that he was ‘extremely surprised’ by the plan, which he said showed ‘disrespect for common sense and arrogance towards science’.
He claimed no workers at the Wuhan Institute of Virology ever became ill with the virus and said they did not carry out gain-of-function tests at the lab.
First derided by many as a right-wing conspiracy theory and vehemently rejected by Beijing, the idea that Covid may have emerged from a lab leak has been gaining traction.
Donald Trump peddled the theory early after the pandemic started but he was criticised by many in the mainstream media who believed it originated naturally in the Wuhan wet market.
In recent months, the theory has gained momentum after US intelligence reports claimed three workers at the lab were hospitalised with a flu-like illness in November 2019, just as the first cases were identified.
China’s vice health minister Zeng Yixin (pictured) told reporters today that he was ‘extremely surprised’ by the plan
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.
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’.
He said: ‘This phase two study of origin tracing is both disrespectful to common sense and contrary to science in some aspects.
Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus’s proposals include ‘audits of relevant laboratories and research institutions operating in the area of the initial human cases identified in December 2019’
‘There is no way that we accept such an origin tracing study proposal.’
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.
He also called for more studies of animal markets in and around Wuhan.
The WHO boss said it was ‘premature’ to discount the lab leak theory, adding: ‘As you know, I was a lab technician myself, an immunologist, and have worked in the lab. And lab accidents happen. It’s common.’
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.
The investigators concluded it was ‘possible’ the virus was leaked from a lab, but said it was ‘extremely unlikely’ and did not warrant further study.
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.