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China ‘shocked’ by WHO plan for COVID-19 origins study

U.S. and others say China has not been transparent about events in early days of pandemic. China cannot accept the World Health Organization’s plan for the second phase of a study into the origins of COVID-19, a senior Chinese health official said Thursday.

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Zeng Yixin, the vice minister of the National Health Commission, said he was shocked by the plan and specifically, the theory that the virus might have leaked from a Chinese lab.

He dismissed the theory as a rumour that runs counter to common sense and science.

“It is impossible for us to accept such an origin-tracing plan,” he said at a news conference called to address the COVID-19 origins issue.

The search for the origins of the virus has become a diplomatic issue that has worsened China’s relations with the U.S. and many of its allies. The U.S. and others say that China has not been transparent about what happened in the early days of the pandemic. China accuses critics of politicizing an issue that should be left to scientists.
Liang Wannian, the Chinese co-leader of the joint China-WHO investigation into the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic, speaks at a press conference in Beijing on Thursday. Chinese officials dismiss the theory that the virus might have leaked from a Chinese lab. (Mark Schiefelbein/The Associated Press)

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the director-general of WHO, acknowledged last week that it was premature to rule out a potential link between the pandemic and a leak from a Chinese government lab in Wuhan, the city where the disease was first detected in late 2019.

Zeng said the Wuhan lab has no virus that can directly infect humans. He noted that a WHO-coordinated team of international experts who visited the lab earlier this year concluded that a lab leak was highly unlikely.

Most experts believe the virus most likely jumped from animals to humans. The highly politicized debate centres on whether a lab leak is so unlikely that the theory should be ruled out as a possibility, or if it merits further study.

President Joe Biden ordered U.S. intelligence officials to “redouble” their efforts to investigate the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic, including any possibility the trail might lead to a Chinese laboratory.

After months of minimizing that possibility as a fringe theory, the Biden administration is joining worldwide pressure for China to be more open about the outbreak, aiming to head off GOP complaints the president has not been tough enough, as well as to use the opportunity to press China on alleged obstruction.

Biden on Wednesday asked U.S. intelligence agencies to report back within 90 days. He directed U.S. national laboratories to assist with the investigation and the intelligence community to prepare a list of specific queries for the Chinese government. He called on China to co-operate with international probes into the origins of the pandemic.

Republicans, including former president Donald Trump, have promoted the theory that the virus emerged from a laboratory accident rather than naturally through human contact with an infected animal in Wuhan, China.

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