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China rejects WHO's plan for second COVID-19 origins study

Zeng Yixin, deputy minister of the National Health Commission, told reporters Thursday that China rejects the World Health Organization's proposed plan to conduct a second investigation into the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic. File Photo by Wu Hong/EPA-EFE
Zeng Yixin, deputy minister of the National Health Commission, told reporters Thursday that China rejects the World Health Organization's proposed plan to conduct a second investigation into the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic. File Photo by Wu Hong/EPA-EFE

July 22 (UPI) -- A senior official with China's leading health authority on Thursday rejected the World Health Organization's proposal to conduct a second investigation into the origins of the coronavirus pandemic, stating he was "surprised" that it included probing the theory that COVID-19 escaped from a virology lab.

Zeng Yixin, deputy minister of the National Health Commission, accused the WHO during a press conference Thursday of "arrogance" for considering the lab leak theory.

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"This phase 2 study of origin tracing is both disrespectful to common sense and contrary to science in some aspect," he said. "There is no way that we accept such an origin tracing study proposal."

The theory that COVID-19 leaked from a virology lab in the central Chinese city of Wuhan, where the virus was first detected in late 2019 -- once considered a conspiracy theory -- has regained attention in recent months, especially following the completion of the WHO's first investigation into China's outbreak.

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In late March, a joint WHO-China team of experts produced the long-awaited report, stating the virus likely came not from a Wuhan wet market but from wildlife farms in Southeast Asia. The report also dismissed the lab leak theory as "an extremely unlikely pathway."

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The report, however, came under swift and widespread criticism from the United States, the European Union and more than a dozen nations calling for a second probe after WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told member states that he doesn't believe that "this assessment was extensive enough," as China did not permit full access to pertinent data.

Scientists have called for an investigation into lab leak theory, as there wasn't enough evidence to rule out that the virus didn't escape through a laboratory accident. U.S. President Joe Biden has also directed intelligence agencies to investigate the origins of the virus and joined the other leaders of the Group of Seven in calling for a new probe.

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On Friday, Tedros announced that WHO member states had received a proposed plan for a second study designed to probe five areas, including "audits of relevant laboratories and research institutions operating in the area of the initial human cases identified in December 2019."

Tedros had told reporters the day before that the first probe produced progress, but the team was not provided access to raw data concerning the start of the pandemic.

"We have designed the second phase of the study, and we are asking China to be transparent, open and cooperate on the information raw data that we asked for in the early days of the pandemic," he said.

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China's Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian dismissed Tedros' claim to reporters, saying China did show data to the scientists while repeating China's call for origin studies to be conducted outside its borders.

"We need to search for possible early cases globally and further understand the role of cold chains and frozen foods in the transmission of the virus," he said, repeating a claim by China that the virus came to Wuhan through frozen food and that Tedros was politicizing something that should be driven by science.

Zeng on Thursday also called for a global study, saying any further investigations should be based on the foundation of the first probe.

"[We] should promote a global study involving multiple countries and locations involving early case findings, molecular epidemiology and animal intermediate host traceability," he said.

A year in pandemic: How COVID-19 changed the world

January 31, 2020
National Institutes of Health official Dr. Anthony Fauci (C) speaks about the coronavirus during a press briefing at the White House in Washington, D.C. Health and Human Services Secretary Alexander Azar (L) announced that the United States is declaring the virus a public health emergency and issued a federal quarantine order of 14 days for 195 Americans. Photo by Leigh Vogel/UPI | License Photo

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