China is sticking by a March assessment that indicated the coronavirus was unlikely to have originated at its Wuhan Institute of Virology, and it is attempting to divert attention away from Fort Detrick, Maryland.
The Wall Street Journal claimed on Sunday that 3 Wuhan lab researchers were ill in November 2019, citing a US intelligence dossier received by the paper. The news comes after a State Department fact sheet released in former President Donald Trump’s last days said that researchers were ill in the autumn of 2019 and as experts seek for more study into the coronavirus’s origin.
Zhao Lijian, a Foreign Ministry official, linked reporters to a statement the lab gave in March when asked about the Journal’s allegations at Monday’s briefing. The lab indicated in it, he added, that no workers had been infected with the virus before December 30—the day China notified cases to the World Health Organization (WHO)—and that a “‘zero infection’ record” was kept among employees and graduate students.
“I’ve read it, it’s a complete lie,” Yuan Zhiming, director of the Wuhan institute’s National Biosafety Lab, told the state-run Global Times, speaking of the intelligence report. “Those claims are groundless. The lab has not been aware of this situation, and I don’t even know where such information came from.”
The outbreak brought up memories of the SARS crisis in 2003, when China was chastised for its response, which included a lack of openness. The pandemic has sparked questions about China’s capacity to be honest this time, and though Chinese officials earned high praise from the WHO for their response, many people have remained skeptical of their claims.
China has angrily denied accusations that it was not honest about the coronavirus, and it has disputed charges that a joint China-WHO mission’s origin report was defective due to research restrictions. The assessment, which was released in March, concluded that a lab breach was improbable and that a zoonotic spillover was more plausible.
The study has been exploited by Chinese officials to promote the idea that the facility was cleared as the virus’s genesis place, while WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus stressed that the expedition did not discover the source and that further investigation was needed to make “more strong findings.”
In a letter published in the journal Science, a group of 18 experts referenced Ghebreyesus’ words and urged researchers to consider all alternatives. They chastised researchers on the China-WHO joint mission for not giving lab and zoonotic spillover ideas “equal attention,” writing that both should be taken seriously until more data is available.
“The chokehold on public consideration of an accidental lab incident as a possible pandemic origin has just been broken,” Jamie Metzl, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and an adviser to the WHO, told Newsweek. “Following publication of the Science letter, it will be irresponsible for any scientific journal or news outlet to not fully represent this viable hypothesis.”
Meanwhile, China maintains that the study conducted by the China-WHO joint mission is authentic. Members “went to every area they asked to see and met everyone they wanted to meet,” Zhao said on Friday.
Instead of focusing on their own nation, Chinese leaders have promoted the erroneous assumption that the virus originated in America. Zhao said there are “serious concerns” about America’s biological lab, referring to Fort Detrick in Maryland.
It’s not the first time China has tried to move the emphasis of the origin to other regions of the world, and it’s also called for a probe into Fort Detrick despite not providing any proof to support its position.
“What is the real purpose for the U.S. to continue to play up the so-called lab leak theory?” Zhao said Friday. “Does it really care about the origin tracing of the virus or just want to divert attention?”
Former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is one among the most vocal supporters of the Wuhan lab leak scenario. He recently compared China’s “cover-up” of the epidemic to Russia’s Chernobyl nuclear plant disaster in 1986, and urged the country to debunk the lab leak allegation.
Metzl believes that the Trump administration’s politicization of the lab leak idea was one of the reasons why it was disregarded as a fringe notion so quickly and why scientists were more vocal about a zoonotic spillover. He applauded the demand for more research.
“It’s using the best scientific method with one hand tied behind your back. You’re doing a retrospective analysis and investigation, much like the fossil men trying to find the origin of mankind,” Jon Andrus, former deputy director of the Pan American Health Organization, previously told Newsweek.
“If we were able to determine [the origin] with clear certainty, then we would learn from it, but that’s very challenging,” he said.