China defends role in COVID-19 origins hunt as pressure mounts for more research

Catherine Wong, South China Morning Post

Posted at Sep 30 2021 01:13 PM

China has sought to defend its cooperation with the World Health Organization in the search for the origins of Covid-19, releasing a summary of its actions so far.

The report, published by state news agency Xinhua, comes as the WHO and world leaders press China to help with further research in the origins hunt and a deadline looms for appointments to a group to drive that work.
On Wednesday, WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus repeated his call for a second phase of research – with China’s cooperation – to start “as soon as possible”.

“It’s through knowing the origin or what happened that we can prevent the next one, so we expect the collaboration of China and all countries involved,” he said at a World Trade Organization forum.

An earlier “phase one” investigation wrapped up in February after a team of 14 international experts spent four weeks in Wuhan, the central Chinese city where the coronavirus was first detected.

But Tedros and other international leaders raised concerns about China’s data transparency during the mission.
Tedros has also repeatedly called for further investigation of a theory that the virus first spread due to a laboratory accident.

The possibility of a “lab leak”, particularly from the Wuhan Institute of Virology, was ruled “extremely unlikely” in a joint report by the international experts and their Chinese counterparts, but critics said the theory was not adequately investigated.

In July, Chinese health officials flatly rejected the WHO’s outline for a second phase of research, including formal laboratory audits, saying they would be “disrespectful to common sense”.

Beijing regards those calls as politically motivated, and has pushed instead for the next phase to focus on international research, leaving the future of the WHO’s work in question.

In comments at the United Nations last week, Chinese President Xi Jinping said: “China will continue to support and engage in global science-based origins tracing, and stands firmly opposed to political manoeuvring in whatever form.”

In the report released on Wednesday, Xinhua stressed that China cooperated during a preparatory mission from two WHO officials in July last year and during the WHO-led mission in January, saying China “offered the necessary facilitation”.

The news agency said the document was based on media reports and information from China’s National Health Commission, research institutes, universities and other relevant parties.

It highlighted information the international team gained about laboratory work and safety, but offered few new details, borrowing heavily from the phase one mission report published in March.

“To study the origins, transmission and evolution of Covid-19, which has raged across more than 200 countries and regions, the global science community needs to work together so that science, solidarity and cooperation will prevail over ignorance, isolation and prejudice,” the report said.

Without saying what was discussed, the report said that while in China in July last year, two WHO officials spoke via video link with researchers at the Wuhan institute.

The report described the information the Wuhan researchers gave the international team – but added nothing beyond what was released in the WHO report in March.

It added that the team learned about the “management” of Wuhan-based laboratories under the Chinese Centre for Disease Control and Prevention.

The report did not include an update on any work done in China since that time, including studies recommended in the joint report. Few details are known about such research or the extent to which it is being done.

But it did give new details about a meeting between representatives of a Wuhan blood bank and the international team, who hoped to arrange testing of stored samples from autumn 2019 to help understand when the virus first appeared in Wuhan.

In comments after the mission, team member Danish epidemiologist Thea Fischer said the Wuhan Blood Centre had agreed to test samples from that time frame.

Chinese health officials also referred to an agreement in July this year, confirming the testing would be carried out after a two-year statutory storage period had passed.

However, the centre said at the time that there was “no precedent” to use such samples in scientific study, and required “prudent research plans”, according to the Xinhua report.

Scientists stress that the clock is ticking on further work on the ground into the origins of Covid-19.
The WHO has also yet to name the members of a new expert group expected to guide the task by recommending research priorities.

A deadline for experts to apply to the group, known as the Scientific Advisory Group for the Origins of Novel Pathogens, or Sago, has been pushed back twice this month in an apparent bid for a wider pool of applicants, with the present deadline set for Wednesday.