China Power | Diplomacy | East Asia

WHO’s COVID-19 Origin Report Leaves Everyone Unsatisfied

The U.S. led its allies in issuing a statement of concern, while China attempted to push back on pointed comments from the WHO’s director general.

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WHO’s COVID-19 Origin Report Leaves Everyone Unsatisfied
Credit: Wikimedia Commons/ Frank Schwichtenberg

On March 30, the World Health Organization released its much-anticipated initial report on the possible origins of COVID-19, based on a fact-finding trip to Wuhan, China earlier this year. The report, as expected, did not provide a definitive answer and the questions it raised left governments around the world unsatisfied.

The scientific issue of where the novel coronavirus first originated became hopelessly politicized, with China pushing back hard against the assumption that COVID-19 first appeared in Wuhan while foreign politicians like former President Donald Trump take a perverse joy in calling it the “China virus.” Even before the team landed, there were questions about what access the researchers would be given to early biological samples and patients in Wuhan.

WHO head Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus addressed those concerns when the report was released, pointedly saying he hoped for “more timely and comprehensive data sharing” in future studies. Tedros also made headlines by saying he wasn’t convinced by the report’s conclusion that it was “extremely unlikely” the virus was accidentally released from a Chinese laboratory, like the Wuhan Institute of Virology. “I do not believe that this assessment was extensive enough,” Tedros said, very publicly reopening the door on the theory. That’s got to be especially vexing for China, which has ferociously tamped down on similar rumors since the pandemic began.

The WHO report called for further follow-up research, while China has demanded that countries farther afield – including the United States – now open up to similar investigations. A Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying put it in a press conference on March 31, “Study of origins is also a global mission that should be conducted in multiple countries and localities… We hope that other relevant countries will cooperate closely with WHO experts in a scientific, open, transparent and responsible manner, as China has done.”

She also dismissed any allegations of interference by China in the WHO research as “just absurd.”

Liang Wannian, the head of the Chinese team that worked with the WHO group of experts, made similar comments in a press conference on March 31. “If we limit the study of origin within China, I think this is a scientific misunderstanding, because the source is still unclear,” he said, according to the Associated Press.

Meanwhile, the United States spearheaded a joint statement “expressing shared concerns regarding the recent WHO-convened study in China.” The statement was signed by Australia, Canada, Czechia, Denmark, Estonia, Israel, Japan, Latvia, Lithuania, Norway, the Republic of Korea, Slovenia, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

The statement shies away from any detailed accusations about China’s role in the WHO probe. Instead, its criticisms are all hinted at. “It is critical for independent experts to have full access to all pertinent human, animal, and environmental data, research, and personnel involved in the early stages of the outbreak relevant to determining how this pandemic emerged,” the statement says. The implied concern, then, is that this did not happen in China – but the statement doesn’t actually say so.

This nuance likely provided some breathing room that allowed countries like Israel and South Korea to sign on. Both countries have been hesitant to overly commit to the United States’ newly muscular China policy, leery of jeopardizing economic relations.

There are also notable no-shows on the statement. India, a fellow member of the Quad with Australia, Japan, and the U.S., didn’t sign. Neither did New Zealand or Vietnam, both mooted members of the “Quad-Plus” grouping in the Asia-Pacific region

France and Germany, key U.S. allies in Europe, were also absent from the list of signatories. However, the European Union issued its own statement on the WHO report, expressing regret over “the late start of the study, the delayed deployment of the experts and the limited availability of early samples and related data.”

“As outlined in the report, further work will have to be pursued to understand the origin of SARS-CoV-2 and its introduction into the human population,” the statement said. “This will require further and timely access to all relevant locations and to all relevant human, animal and environmental data available.” Like the U.S.-led statement, the European Union’s statement was careful not to directly accuse China of any malfeasance.

China responded in turn, accusing the signatories of the U.S. statement of politicizing the WHO probe – something Hua blasted as “deeply immoral.”

“The US assembled a handful of countries and released this so-called statement, openly questioning and negating the joint report of the joint WHO-China study,” she said. “This is solid evidence of their disregard for science and political manipulation of study of origins.”