In proposing a Phase 2 investigation into the pandemic origins on July 16, the director general of the World Health Organization, Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, attempted to navigate a fraught and contested topic. He emphasized the importance of scientists and science, called on China to cooperate and be transparent, and said both major hypotheses for how the pandemic began should be investigated: either a zoonotic spillover or a laboratory accident. Then, China slammed the door in his face.

The rejection of the WHO plan on Thursday from Zeng Yixin, vice minister of the National Health Commission, and Yuan Zhiming, the director of the biosafety lab at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, was so absolute as to beggar belief. China’s propaganda mouthpiece, Global Times, quoted Mr. Zeng as saying that the Wuhan Institute of Virology had never conducted gain-of-function research that would examine whether viruses could be modified to improve their ability to infect. Mr. Yuan said that the institute “did not contact, preserve or study the novel coronavirus, and it never designed, made or leaked the virus.” No employees or students were infected, and no pathogen leakage or human infection has occurred in Wuhan’s high-level biosecurity lab since it was put into operation in 2018, he insisted.

The evidence runs to the contrary. The institute was carrying out experiments using chimeric viruses with modified spike proteins, tested on mice with respiratory cells genetically altered to resemble those of humans. The goal was to see which were more infective. These experiments were written into grant applications, including for U.S. funds; the research began in 2014-2015 and was underway at the institute through 2019. The work was not done in the highest biosecurity level laboratory. The institute had collected bat coronavirus samples from a mine in southern China and stored genomic sequences of a number of them. The outgoing Trump administration alleged in a Jan. 15 statement that Wuhan institute workers had become ill “with symptoms consistent with both covid-19 and common seasonal illnesses.” China has refused to allow further investigation into these and other unresolved questions, while pointing instead to potential virus origins beyond its borders, and spreading disinformation that it came from a U.S. military laboratory.

Suspiciously, everywhere China looks, it comes up empty-handed. China reported to the WHO that more than 80,000 wildlife, livestock and poultry samples were checked for the virus before and after the outbreak, and none tested positive. In search of human health records, China checked 233 institutions with 76,253 records of respiratory conditions between October and November 2019 and identified 92 that might be SARS-CoV-2, but then said none were. China took offline a key database in September 2019 saying it was because of cybersecurity. When eight Chinese doctors expressed concern about a new sickness in Wuhan in December 2019, they were reprimanded for spreading rumors, and the Chinese leadership for weeks hid the truth about the transmissibility of the novel coronavirus from the WHO and the Chinese people.

Taken together, China’s answers add up to a pattern of denial, diversion and deception. Nevertheless, to prepare for future pandemics and to better understand this one, the origins investigation must go on, either by WHO or others — or both.

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