How the Hunt for COVID's Origins Turned Toxic in China

AP investigation shows how politicians in Beijing trumped scientists
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Apr 28, 2024 6:35 AM CDT
How the Hunt for COVID's Origins Turned Toxic in China
A police officer moves journalists back from a farewell event held for the last group of medical workers who came from outside Wuhan to help the city during the coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan in central China's Hubei province on April 15, 2020.   (AP Photo/Ng Han Guan, File)

The Chinese government froze meaningful efforts to trace the origins of the coronavirus pandemic, despite publicly declaring it supported an open scientific inquiry, an investigation by the Associated Press has found. Highlights:

  • The AP drew on thousands of pages of undisclosed emails and documents, leaked recordings, and dozens of interviews that showed the freeze began far earlier than previously known—in the first weeks of the outbreak—and involved political and scientific infighting in China as much as international finger-pointing.
  • Crucial initial efforts were hindered by bureaucrats in Wuhan trying to avoid blame who misled the central government; the central government, which silenced Chinese scientists and subjected visiting UN officials to stage-managed tours; and the World Health Organization itself, which may have compromised early opportunities to gather critical information, according to internal materials obtained by AP.

  • Even the date when Chinese authorities first started searching for the virus' origins is unclear. The first publicly known search for the coronavirus took place on Dec. 31, 2019, when Chinese Center for Disease Control scientists visited the Wuhan market where many early COVID-19 cases surfaced. But WHO officials heard of an earlier inspection of the market on Dec. 25, 2019, described as "not routine."
  • Early on, Chinese scientists were silenced and politicians took control. As WHO negotiated with China for a mission to investigate COVID-19 in early 2020, it was China's Foreign Ministry, not scientists, that decided the terms. For example, China refused a visa for WHO's Ben Embarek, then the agency's top animal virus expert.
  • Taking charge of the WHO visit was Liang Wannian, an epidemiologist close to top Chinese officials who was widely seen as pushing the party line, not science-backed policies. Liang also ordered the Wuhan market disinfected before samples could be collected and promoted an implausible theory that COVID-19 originated from frozen food imported into China.
  • On a train ride with Dr. Bruce Aylward, a senior adviser to WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Liang lobbied the UN agency to praise China's response in its public report. The new section was so flattering that colleagues emailed Aylward to suggest he "dial it back a bit."
  • By the time WHO led another visit to Wuhan in January 2021, the origins hunt had become highly politicized. Liang organized market workers to tell WHO experts no live wildlife was sold and cut recent photos of wildlife at the market from the report. The WHO team concluded a lab leak was "extremely unlikely." Months later, WHO chief Tedros said it was "premature" to dismiss the lab leak theory and pressed China to be more transparent, infuriating Chinese officials.
  • China told WHO any future missions to find the origins of COVID-19 should be elsewhere, according to a letter obtained by AP. Since then, global cooperation has ground to a halt.
(More China stories.)

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