On Thursday, the WHO appealed to China to share raw data and blood samples from early and potential cases in 2019, and to grant access to labs such as the Wuhan Institute of Virology. It gave the examples of Russia and the US – the only two countries that keep stocks of the eradicated smallpox virus. These stocks are kept in secure labs that are inspected by WHO biosafety teams every two years and their reports are made public, according to the health body.
“Analysing and improving lab safety and protocols in all laboratories around the world, including in China, is important for our collective biosafety and security,” the statement said.
Chinese foreign vice-minister Ma Zhaoxu responded to the WHO statement in a briefing with foreign diplomats on Friday, saying Beijing was not against the origins study. But he said the WHO Secretariat had not properly consulted member states on the plan for the second phase and it was not based on the terms laid out in the March report on the Wuhan mission, according to state broadcaster CCTV.
“[We] oppose an origins study that abandons the first WHO-China joint report. What we support is a scientific investigation of the origins,” Ma said.
Xu Jianguo, a laboratory director with the Chinese Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, also spoke at the briefing, saying the coronavirus was a naturally occurring infectious disease and could not have leaked from a lab, according to news website The Paper.
It is a tough balancing act for the WHO. After a period of uncertainty in the Donald Trump era, key donor the US has repaired ties with the health body – underscored when Secretary of State Antony Blinken met its chief, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, in Kuwait last month. But the WHO also needs China’s cooperation for future Covid-19 origins studies and public health initiatives.
Scott Rosenstein, a senior public health adviser at New York-based consultancy Eurasia Group, said the cooling of the relationship between China and the WHO was noteworthy because it had been one of “Beijing’s few remaining defenders” before the phase two proposal.
WHO chief Tedros repeatedly praised China’s response during the initial outbreak in Wuhan last year.
“With the relationship with the WHO now souring I think it’s unlikely that there will be much in the way of new on-the-ground research in China looking at either natural or lab leak origin,” Rosenstein said earlier.
He added that the US would also be limited in its efforts to lead the way on origins tracing without access to China. “There is only so much the US can do outside of China, and even within China a lot of the evidence that could be helpful to determine the origin of the virus may no longer exist,” he said. “The most likely route to a better understanding of the origin is going to be a Chinese whistle-blower or some other intel gained without Beijing’s assistance.”
Daniel Aldrich, director of the security and resilience studies programme at Northeastern University in Boston, said despite the tensions in the relationship it would be necessary for the US and China to cooperate on origins tracing.
He added that China’s credibility as a “transparent great power” would also be boosted if it cooperated with the WHO. “Given the importance of openness, transparency, and reproducibility in science, the Chinese foreign ministry and other government officials would find cooperating would likely be more effective than pushing back against the WHO’s plans for origin tracing,” he said.