Leading U.S. infectious disease experts are warning that China’s rejection of a World Health Organization plan for another Covid-19 investigation inside the country threatens to deny the world critical data needed to identify and head off future pandemics.
And experts told POLITICO that the denial of access to Wuhan, the original epicenter of the virus outbreak, deepens growing suspicion the Chinese government is attempting to cover up the possibility that the virus was intentionally engineered.
“We have had already two coronavirus pandemics come out of China and it’s more likely than not will that we will have another coronavirus pandemic come out of China, so [a China-based probe] is our best chance to get our hands around how this gets out of bats and into humans,” said Peter Hotez, dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston. “We can’t do this without going to China. There is no way you can get to the bottom of this from 5000 miles away.”
The Chinese government has bristled at international focus on China as the possible origin location of Covid-19 and instead insisted that it “has multiple origins and broke out in multiple places.”
Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, head of the WHO, outlined a plan recently for a second nvestigation in China of the origins of SARS-COV-2. That proposed probe, a follow-up to a January 2021 WHO investigation initially blocked and subsequently hampered by Chinese authorities, included a proposal for “audits of relevant laboratories and research institutions operating in the area of the initial human cases identified in December 2019,” a veiled reference to the controversial Wuhan Institute of Virology.
Zeng Yixin, China’s vice minister of the National Health Commission, rejected the plan, saying it “disregards common sense and defies science.”
China’s response was unjustified, said Michael Osterholm, the director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota and a member of President Joe Biden’s pre-inauguration coronavirus advisory board.
“I think what [WHO] asked was perfectly reasonable, ” said Osterholm, who argued that China’s rejection of the probe will fuel conspiratorial speculation about how the virus emerged in China. “It makes people suspect this is a manmade virus with an intentional release.”
Chris Beyrer, Desmond M. Tutu professor of public health and human rights at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, called China’s rejection of the probe “very problematic.”
Beyrer attributed China’s action to the ruling Chinese Communist Party’s determination to stifle any potentially negative revelations about the origins of Covid-19.
“I think the Chinese now have an official [pandemic] narrative and they are pushing it very hard and there is no opportunity for them to revisit that narrative of having asserted success” of its pandemic control efforts, Beyrer said.
Covid-19 has had a dramatic impact on lives and livelihood around the world. The virus has killed more than 4 million people and sickened 193 million others worldwide. The United States has recorded more than 610,000 COVID-19 fatalities in the same period. The pandemic has also inflicted a catastrophic global economic toll. It’s impact has included a sharp reduction in global gross domestic product and drastically curtailed global trade in 2020.
The human implications of the pandemic’s economic impact have also been stark. A U.S. Congressional Research Service report released on July 9 noted that as a result of the pandemic, worldwide “95 million people may have entered into extreme poverty in 2020 with 80 million more undernourished compared to pre-pandemic levels.”
China’s rejection of the probe to learn the virus origin has drawn criticism on Capitol Hill. Rep. Ami Bera (D-CA), chair of the Subcommittee on Asia, the Pacific, Central Asia and Nonproliferation, told POLITICO in a statement that China’s move was “unacceptable.” Bera demanded a “comprehensive, transparent and independent analysis into the origins of COVID-19.”
But acrimony toward China for its derailment of the proposed follow-up WHO investigation is not universal. Hotez places the responsibility for the rejection on the WHO for focusing on the Wuhan lab in the emergence of the virus.
“We are demanding things that the Chinese government will never agree to, [such as] banging on the door of the Wuhan Institute of Virology to show the notebooks which they will never agree to,” Hotez said. “There is a misunderstanding [by the WHO] that you will get to the bottom of this by talking to Wuhan Institute of Virology scientists and poring over notebooks. Are you going to do a search of 15,000 pages of Wuhan Institute of Virology notebooks and look for where someone wrote ’oops!’?
U.N. officials also fault the tone of the WHO’s communication with China about the follow-up investigation. Achim Steiner, administrator of the United Nations Development Programme and chair of United Nations Sustainable Development Group, acknowledged Tedros’ has to do a “very difficult tightrope walk” in engaging with China at a “very volatile time” in its relations with major powers, including the United States and the European Union.
But he said China’s interpretation of the probe as arbitrary foreign diktat didn’t help. “Being a head of a U.N. agency, when I talk to China, when I talk to the U.S., I don’t talk by kicking in the door and telling either capital ‘this is what you should do,’” Steiner told POLITICO.
A Geneva-based diplomat who participates in WHO weekly briefings with member countries offered a less charitable assessment of Tedros’ “tough talk on China.” He called Tedros’ July 16 announcement of the probe “the surprise of the year” and suggested it partially reflected his career ambitions. “Maybe Tedros has just done his calculations and realizes that China will not be able to block his reelection [for demanding a robust investigation into virus origins],” said the diplomat, who requested anonymity to be able to speak freely.
Despite the challenges posed by the current impasse between the WHO and China, Beyrer says that the long-term risk of emergent deadly coronaviruses requires that the standoff be bridged. “We are in a struggle that the virus is winning,” he said. “But what we always want to do is prevent [future] pandemics and to do that you need to know how this thing emerged and became so fully adapted to human-to-human spread.”
Osterholm said the Biden administration’s potential role in helping broker a resolution to the impasse is limited and called for a U.S. government focus on support for the WHO to prevent future pandemics. “I think that at this point the administration is looking at all the information we have [about SARS-COV-2 origins]…but that still doesn’t get us back to what we need to learn from the Chinese,” he said.
But Hotez excoriated what he sees as Biden’s role in boosting the Chinese government’s hostility to a follow-up investigation through administration measures such as its May 26 order for intelligence agencies to “redouble” their analysis of the origins of Covid-19 and to produce a report on their conclusions within 90 days. Hotez called that request “ridiculous.”
“We have already thrown all the intelligence at this and not got to the bottom of it,” he said.