Amid rising tensions between the U.S. and China, the true origin of the coronavirus pandemic has become a highly fraught topic. Perhaps, China hawks in the U.S. suggest, Chinese authorities are covering up either a catastrophic error or a deliberate attack that caused the pandemic. Or maybe, their counterparts in China respond, the disease didn’t come from China at all.
The World Health Organization just concluded a fact-finding mission to China was intended as an attempt to turn down the political heat with some hard science—and, presumably, to rebuild the organization’s credibility after being criticized as too deferential to Beijing. But it seems unlikely to change any minds.
For much of last year, the Chinese government, which was criticized for its early attempts to control information about the spread of the virus in Wuhan and its punishment of whistleblowers, resisted pressure to allow an international fact-finding mission into the disease’s origins, while at the same time tightly controlling domestic research. After months of negotiations, it agreed that a 10-scientist team could visit Wuhan, the city where the coronavirus was initially identified. As late as Jan. 6, when the members of the team had already departed their own countries, the WHO and the Chinese government were still haggling over entry visas and arrangements. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of the WHO, described himself as “very disappointed” in the lack of cooperation from the Chinese side. This was rare criticism from the WHO leadership, which generally lavished praised on the Chinese government’s COVID response last year, even as subsequent investigations have revealed officials were growing frustrated at the lack of cooperation from Beijing.
In the end, the WHO team was allowed into Wuhan after completing quarantine and praised the level of cooperation and access they were given by their hosts. At a press conference wrapping up its mission on Monday, the researchers didn’t make any huge news. Peter Ben Embarek, the Dannish scientist leading the mission, said the disease was likely transmitted from bats to humans via another animal—though they haven’t identified what animal it was—and was likely circulating, though not widely, in Wuhan before a cluster emerged at the seafood market where it was first identified.
Significantly, Embarek said it was “extremely unlikely” that the virus emerged from a lab. For much of last year, the Trump administration heavily promoted the theory that the virus was the result of either a laboratory accident or a deliberately engineered bioweapon, pointing to two labs in the Wuhan area that were conducting research on coronaviruses. The overall scientific consensus is that the lab leak theory is theoretically possible but highly unlikely, and that it’s far more probable that the disease spilled over from animals to humans organically, just as countless other respiratory illnesses have.
But if you do believe the lab theories, the WHO mission probably did little to change your mind. Experts who consider the lab theory at least somewhat plausible were already skeptical that this Chinese-authorized mission could provide any trustworthy answers. It doesn’t help when Embarek does things like pronounce himself satisfied after “long, frank, open discussions” with scientists at the Wuhan Institute of Virology—one of the labs at the center of the theories—and describe them as “the best ones to dismiss the claims and provide answers to all the questions.” As Stanford microbiologist David Relman told the Washington Post, “If the only information you’re allowing to be weighed is provided by the very people who have everything to lose by revealing such evidence, that just doesn’t come close to passing the sniff test.”
If anything, the lab leak hypothesis, or at least the “just-asking-questions” variety of it, has only been gaining more mainstream acceptance since Trump’s departure. In an op-ed last week, the Washington Post editorial board described the lab leak hypothesis as a “plausible” theory that “must be investigated,” accusing China of concealing information about the virus’s origins.
Meanwhile, the Chinese government and state-run media have been pushing their own theories in recent months, arguing that the virus originated abroad and was imported into China, perhaps via frozen food imports. (This is a less nutty version than some of the origin stories Chinese diplomats have shared.) Embarek said, in regard to the frozen food theory, that there was “potential to continue to follow this lead,” which will be taken by Chinese authorities as vindication. Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said the U.S. should follow China’s lead “be able to invite WHO experts to the U.S. to conduct origin tracing research and inspection,” referring to a longstanding conspiracy theory that the virus actually came from the U.S.
White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said this week that the U.S. government would conduct its own review of the team’s findings and noted that the U.S. was not involved in the planning of the WHO meeting since the Trump administration had withdrawn from the organization last summer, in large part because of its relationship with China. While the U.S. has now rejoined the WHO, she added that it is “imperative that we have our own team of experts on the ground”. China seems pretty unlikely to allow that in the current atmosphere.
Despite the months of reluctance and obstruction, the WHO mission was mostly a public relations win for China. It not only refuted some of the more explosive anti-Chinese allegations, but also gave their hosts what definitely seemed like some excessive praise for cooperation and transparency. On the other hand, as long as Chinese authorities keep pushing their own dubious theories, the information war seems likely to continue.