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How Chinese pressure on coronavirus origins probe shocked the WHO — and led its director to push back

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From the start of the coronavirus pandemic, the World Health Organization has been accused of being too soft on China. President Donald Trump last year accused the organization of pushing “China’s misinformation about the virus” as he threatened to withdraw U.S. funding. At one point, Japan’s deputy prime minister labeled it the “China Health Organization.”

But a new book that details the relationship between the United States, China and the WHO during the pandemic offers a more nuanced and revealing story. It shows how WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus cautiously praised China in public while pressuring it in private. And it shows how the Trump administration undermined this tactic with open hostility toward China and the WHO.

“Aftershocks: Pandemic Politics and the End of the Old International Order,” written by Thomas Wright and Colin Kahl and due to be published Tuesday, reveals how Tedros lost patience with China: When a WHO scientist on a coronavirus origins probe announced in February that the idea that the virus leaked from a lab was “extremely unlikely” and unworthy of further investigation, senior WHO staff in Geneva were shocked. “We fell off our chairs,” one member told the authors.

The team in Wuhan appeared to have given in to Chinese pressure to dismiss the idea without a real investigation. Later, when the WHO-China team released a report that again dismissed that scenario, Tedros pushed back, saying that the research was not “extensive enough” and that there had not been “timely and comprehensive data-sharing.”

Since then, relations between the WHO and China have nosedived. Chinese officials said in July that they would not accept any further investigation into the origin of the coronavirus in China and accused the United States of pressuring scientists. The WHO last week released a statement that resisted the idea that “the origins study has been politicized, or that WHO has acted due to political pressure.”

Wright is a scholar at the Brookings Institution who focuses on America’s global relationships, and Kahl was recently confirmed as undersecretary of defense for policy in the Biden administration. In an interview, Wright said researching for the book revealed how the WHO’s cautious approach toward China was at odds with the Trump administration’s brash style, though both were driven by legitimate concerns about China under President Xi Jinping.

The World Health Assembly, a representative body of WHO member states, approved an investigation into the pandemic’s origins in May 2020. Soon an international team of experts led by WHO official Peter Ben Embarek was convened to travel to Wuhan, the virus’s epicenter, to work with Chinese colleagues.

As the pandemic worsened, it became clear this path would be difficult. Trump had initially praised Xi’s handling of the outbreak in Wuhan. But as the virus surged in the United States in spring 2020, Trump recognized the political peril it presented him and turned on China.

The virus’s origins in Wuhan were particularly disputed. Though some scientists said the virus probably spread from bats to humans via an unknown third animal — zoonotic spread — influential members of the Trump administration pushed the idea that the virus could have inadvertently leaked from a laboratory in Wuhan, implying China was at fault.

WHO member states had authorized a probe that was specifically focused on zoonotic spread, but even this was difficult. The arrival of the team was delayed. After four weeks in Wuhan, including two in quarantine, Ben Embarek said in a Feb. 9 news conference that the group had ruled that indirect zoonotic spread was “likely” and a lab leak was “extremely unlikely” and not worthy of further investigation.

Wright and Kahl report that WHO leadership in Geneva were “stunned” by their colleague’s statement. They did not believe the team that went to Wuhan had the access or data to rule out the lab-leak theory. Tedros told the investigative team this, the book reports, but the team was “defensive,” describing pressure from Chinese officials that led to a compromise.

In a documentary released last week, Ben Embarek described how Chinese officials had wanted no mention of a lab leak at all. The scenario was only included “on the condition we didn’t recommend any specific studies to further that hypothesis,” he said.

Despite Tedros’s criticism, when the probe’s findings were released in a report in March, it repeated that the lab scenario was “extremely unlikely.” Afterward, according to the book, the WHO director general told China’s envoy in Geneva that he would tell the truth about the report “even if China did not like it.”

Accounts of Tedros’s belated shift on China may be unlikely to win over his critics. One senior Trump official told Wright and Kahl that the WHO only got tough on China after Trump left office because the impulsive Republican had provided Tedros the “cover” of a “pantomime villain.”

But there’s little evidence a U.S.-backed tough approach would have worked either. According to Wright, then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, a lab-leak theory proponent, “undermined it by taking it too far,” diminishing support from allies. Though some Trump officials recognized the pandemic’s gravity early on, they viewed it through the prism of a “China problem,” rather than a public health emergency, Wright said.

“That U.S.-China rivalry really shaped everything else,” he added.

As an international organization with limited powers, the WHO is beholden to its member states. “The U.S. has to engage with the WHO, work with China at the WHO, push for WHO reforms, but ultimately it has to recognize that these reforms are very unlikely to take root because China and maybe others as well won’t commit to higher levels of transparency,” Wright said.

A Trump-era plan for an alternative — dubbed “America’s Response to Outbreaks” — faltered because of bureaucratic issues and the president’s own uninterest. Wright and Kahl call for an alternative called the Global Alliance for Pandemic Preparedness, wherein like-minded nations could supplement the WHO’s work.

As for the WHO-backed probe into the coronavirus’s origins? Beijing told foreign diplomats last week that the March report calling a lab leak unlikely must be “respected,” while U.S. intelligence is nearing the end of a 90-day deadline set by President Biden to reveal more about the virus’s origin.

At a media briefing on Wednesday, WHO emergencies chief Mike Ryan said the organization was working behind the scenes to increase confidence in an investigation, and “we are making headway on that, but I have to admit, that has not been easy.”

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