Tensions between Beijing and Washington have escalated, with the Chinese government pushing for a World Health Organisation investigation into whether the coronavirus pandemic was birthed from a lab in the United States.
It comes after the US government accused the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) of withholding information to the WHO investigations team.
Last week China’s foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said they hoped the US would follow China’s lead and allow a WHO investigation into US labs.
“(We hope) that following China’s example, the US side will act in a positive, science-based and cooperative manner on the origin-tracing issue (and) invite WHO experts in for an origin-tracing study,” Mr Wenbin said.
Afterwards, Zeng Guang, chief epidemiologist at China’s Center for Disease Control, said the US should now be “the focus” of global efforts to trace the virus, CNN reported.
The World Health Organization’s four-week coronavirus investigative in China wrapped on February 10, with may questions about the outbreak left unanswered.
After 28 days on the ground in Wuhan the WHO investigators debunked the theory that SARS-CoV-2 was leaked from a lab, finding that it likely originated in an animal of some kind.
“(Our) findings suggest that the laboratory incident hypothesis is extremely unlikely to explain the introduction of the virus into the human population,” said WHO investigator Peter Ben Embarek, at a press conference announcing their findings.
But the uncertainty around the origins of COVID-19 has given Beijing the opportunity to push its own theories, namely that the virus started elsewhere, likely the US, and travelled to Wuhan via frozen food.
Allan Behm, head of the International and Security Affairs Program at The Australia Institute said the Chinese government was peddling these theories to “muddy the waters” and create more uncertainty around the origins.
“They are saying the virus might have arrived on frozen food, or the Americans could have been experimenting with it, or it came from Europe because they had it already,” he said.
“They’re making assertions, none of which can be proved. But equally, they can’t be disproved.”
He said there were likely two reasons behind why they were doing this – the Chinese government wanted to save face, and avoid being seen as if they did not act fast enough.
“What they are seeking to do is milk the politics of it as hard as they can by generating a sense of ambiguity and uncertainty. So no one can say it absolutely originated in China,” he said.
Following allegations in The New York Times that the CCP withheld data the White House doubled down on the accusation.
Earlier this week, White House National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said Washington had “deep concerns about the way in which the early findings of the COVID-19 investigation were communicated and questions about the process used to reach them.”
“It is imperative that this report be independent, with expert findings free from intervention or alteration by the Chinese government,” Mr Sullivan said.
But WHO investigation team member Peter Daszak hit back, tweeting “This was NOT my experience on [the WHO] mission.”
This was NOT my experience on @WHO mission. As lead of animal/environment working group I found trust & openness w/ my China counterparts. We DID get access to critical new data throughout. We DID increase our understanding of likely spillover pathways. https://t.co/gwGnm9pnGj
— Peter Daszak (@PeterDaszak) February 13, 2021
“As lead of animal/environment working group I found trust & openness w/ my China counterparts. We DID get access to critical new data throughout. We DID increase our understanding of likely spillover pathways,” Mr Daszak wrote.
Mr Daszak has previously drawn criticism for his professional links to the Wuhan Institute of Virology.
He heads the US-based not-for-profit EcoHealth Alliance, which has partnered with the Wuhan Institute of Virology for more than a decade.
Although some questions were answered, the blanket of confusion over how much access WHO investigators had and the inconclusive nature of where COVID-19 came from, was a detriment to our global society, Mr Behm said.
“We were not able to learn the lessons that might be available, for when the next one crops up,” he said.
A final report may take over a year, with the Chinese government also pushing the WHO to conduct studies in other countries.