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Opinion We can’t discover the pandemic’s origins if China’s thought police keep watching scientists

Security guards change shift under a screen showing Chinese President Xi Jinping delivering a speech for the evening news broadcast in Beijing on Thursday.
Security guards change shift under a screen showing Chinese President Xi Jinping delivering a speech for the evening news broadcast in Beijing on Thursday. (Ng Han Guan/Associated Press)

THE ESSENCE of scientific inquiry is to discover truth: Ask questions, seek evidence, develop hypotheses, conduct experiments and validate findings. China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman pledged on Thursday that China will approach the investigation into the origins of the coronavirus in an “open, transparent and responsible spirit.” But what if the investigation turns up something that China’s leaders do not want to hear, or reveal?

China’s authoritarian system, led by a party-state that demands obedience, does not permit the free flow of ideas and information. It covered up the spreading virus in the early weeks of the outbreak in Wuhan. An investigation by the Associated Press, published on Dec. 30, strongly suggests that China has decided to impose tough political controls over research into origins of the virus.

According to a Chinese internal document uncovered by the AP, in early March, China created a high-level task force to exert control over many aspects of research on the virus, including prevention, medicines, vaccines, viral origins and transmission routes. The document, marked “not to be made public,” applied to all universities, companies, and medical and research institutions. It said that communication and publication of research had to be orchestrated like “a game of chess,” that propaganda and public opinion teams were to “guide publication,” and warned against publishing without permission. This is the police-state view of science: It must obey.

Full coverage of the coronavirus pandemic

Scientists have said the novel coronavirus probably originated in nature with bats or another animal, perhaps passing through an intermediary host before infecting a person. If the spillover pathway is found, it could greatly help prepare for, and prevent, a future pandemic.

But the possibility of a laboratory accident or inadvertent leak having caused the coronavirus outbreak must not be ignored. The genetic makeup of the coronavirus is similar to a variant found in bats. Research into bat coronaviruses was being conducted by the Wuhan Institute of Virology, which collected samples from a mine in Yunnan province in 2012 and 2013. Earlier in 2012, six miners there exposed to bats and bat feces were hospitalized suffering from an illness similar to severe acute respiratory syndrome, and three died. China has denied that a laboratory leak or accident caused the Wuhan outbreak. Under the high-level controls that the Associated Press disclosed, will China allow foreign scientists to freely ask questions about the research and methods of the Wuhan Institute of Virology?

Chinese officials have already been spinning a story that the virus got started somewhere beyond China’s borders and came in through imported seafood. What if a researcher finds otherwise? Will he or she be permitted to publish it, or will China’s task force decide it is an inconvenient truth? A World Health Organization team looking into origins of the virus is arriving soon in China. The WHO has said it will look at all possibilities. A credible investigation of how the pandemic began will require China to be completely open and transparent, including about the Wuhan Institute of Virology. The presence of China’s thought police overseeing scientific inquiry does not bode well.

Read more:

Josh Rogin: State Department cables warned of safety issues at Wuhan lab studying bat coronaviruses

David Ignatius: How did covid-19 begin? Its initial origin story is shaky.

Xinyan Yu: My hometown showed us how a pandemic begins. Could it also show us how one ends?

The Post’s View: What is China trying to hide about the coronavirus?