A top Chinese official lashed out Thursday at plans for a second-phase international study of whether the coronavirus leaked from a lab in Wuhan instead of developing naturally and transmitting from an animal host to humans.
“The plan disregards common sense and defies science,” Zeng Yixin, the vice minister of the Chinese National Health Commission, said at a press conference in Beijing.
But that rejection drew a sharp rebuke from Washington, with the White House accusing China‘s Communist regime of “stonewalling.”
The Biden White House said in a statement Thursday it was “deeply disappointed” by Beijing‘s stance.
“Their position is irresponsible and, frankly, dangerous,” the White House said. “Alongside other member states around the world, we continue to call for China to provide the needed access to data and samples. And this is critical so we can understand to prevent the next pandemic. This is about saving lives in the future, and it’s not a time to be stonewalling.”
A joint investigation by the World Health Organization and China earlier this year has done little to quell a raging international debate about how COVID-19 originated and quickly spread across the globe, killing more than 6 million people.
The investigation has been faulted for paying little heed to the possibility a pathogen escaped from the Wuhan Institute of Virology, which conducts high-level research into coronaviruses found in China. Chinese officials have fiercely denied the lab-leak theory, which was championed by the Trump administration, and say any future probe should focus on whether the deadly coronavirus was brought in from outside the country.
The virus’ spread was first detected in late 2019 in Wuhan, a central Chinese city, raising suspicions about the lab after initial reports suggested a “wet” market with live animals was to blame.
Wuhan lab workers reportedly became sick with flu-like symptoms and went to the hospital shortly before the outbreak, according to U.S. intelligence.
WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus faulted a joint WHO-China probe earlier this year that found the lab-leak theory “extremely unlikely” and said a more comprehensive and open look at the lab is needed. President Biden has acknowledged that U.S. intelligence agencies are divided over how COVID-19 originated and has ordered a fresh look at the evidence that is expected to be produced in the very near future.
Chinese outrage is not unexpected, but proponents of the lab theory will view it as Beijing getting nervous about fact-finding that’s been rebuffed so far. Beijing has tried to redirect possible fault by floating the theory the virus began elsewhere or escaped from a U.S. military lab.
The Global Times, a state-run media outlet, recently highlighted nearly 5 million Chinese signatures on an open letter demanding an investigation into a lab at Fort Detrick, Maryland.
On Capitol Hill, House Minority Leader Steve Scalise renewed his call Thursday for Speaker Nancy Pelosi to hold hearings on where the virus started. Chinese critics on the Hill accuse Beijing of stonewalling on the COVID-19 origin probe.
The Louisiana Republican accused the California Democrat of helping the communist government cover up the virus’s origins and whether U.S. funding supported “gain-of-function” research that could have made a collected virus more dangerous at the Wuhan lab.
“We need to find out, at least, how it really did happen,” Mr. Scalise said.
Also Thursday, a trio of Republican senators — Marco Rubio of Florida, Bill Hagerty of Tennessee and Ted Cruz of Texas — asked GAVI, the vaccine-sharing alliance, to explain why it is purchasing Sinovac and Sinopharm vaccines from China.
They want to know how much the alliance is paying for the vaccines and whether the U.S. is indirectly funding the purchase through its support for GAVI.
“We are deeply concerned by this agreement due to its potential to enrich the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), which has not made any serious effort to date to bring an end to the pandemic,” the senators wrote to Jose Manuel Barroso. “We write to request an explanation for why these agreements were signed and if any money from American taxpayers was included in those agreements.”