The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

WHO covid report that called lab leak unlikely must be respected, China tells diplomats

Security personnel guard the Wuhan Center for Disease Control and Prevention during a visit by a World Health Organization team on Feb. 1. The center is across the Yangtze River from the Wuhan Institute of Virology. (Hector Retamal/AFP/Getty Images)

Beijing told foreign diplomats on Friday that China was open to further studies on the origins of the coronavirus, but only if they are based on the findings of a joint China-World Health Organization report published in March that played down the possibility of a lab leak.

The announcement came as the head expert for the WHO report, Peter Ben Embarek, said in a Danish documentary that the possibility of a researcher inadvertently contracting the virus during field research fell in the category of “likely” events, despite the report concluding it was “extremely unlikely” that the virus had originated in a lab.

Ben Embarek also said in the documentary that the report’s wording was the result of compromise with Chinese researchers on the team, who had pushed to omit discussion of the possibility of a lab leak altogether.

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On Friday, China’s Foreign Ministry held a meeting with foreign diplomats, with Vice Foreign Minister Ma Zhaoxu saying that the conclusions of the WHO report must be “respected.”

The WHO and China publicly split over the direction of the coronavirus origins investigation last month, unraveling the tense cooperation they had maintained for more than a year. In a July news conference, WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus criticized China for withholding raw data from overseas experts. Beijing fired back that the WHO showed a “disrespect for common sense” in its recommendation to further investigate Wuhan research labs, and said it would not cooperate.

In recent days, Chinese state media has also ramped up a campaign to push the conspiracy theory that the U.S. military pathogen lab at Fort Detrick in Maryland could have caused the pandemic.

The WHO is now facing the dilemma of how it will implement a follow-up virus origins probe without China’s help. It can take years to confirm the origin of a new virus, and for some diseases, the source is never found.

Ma said on Friday that the WHO plan for further investigation was not based on the March report, and thus had drawn “questioning and opposition from member countries.”

The United States has decided not to wait for the WHO. President Biden has ordered U.S. intelligence agencies to redouble efforts through the summer to turn up evidence on the pandemic’s origins, including scrutinizing the research labs in Wuhan, the central Chinese city where the coronavirus was first detected in late 2019.

Most of the public attention has focused on the Wuhan Institute of Virology. But in the documentary, Ben Embarek mentioned a second lab run by the Wuhan Center for Disease Control and Prevention, which also researched bats and had moved locations in December 2019. That lab has not disclosed its findings from a pre-pandemic research trip to bat caves in search of new diseases, The Washington Post reported in June.

China has been preoccupied in recent weeks with a resurgence of coronavirus infections at home that a massive vaccination push has not been able to stop. Local clusters have emerged in dozens of cities, including Beijing, Wuhan and flood-hit Zhengzhou. Local governments have ordered mass-testing drives for millions of people.

Beijing officials have said in recent months that they believe they fulfilled their part of the coronavirus origins tracing effort by allowing the WHO experts to visit Wuhan in January. They said follow-up research should focus on other countries.

Pei Lin Wu contributed to this report.

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Coronavirus: What you need to know

The latest: The CDC has loosened many of its recommendations for battling the coronavirus, a strategic shift that puts more of the onus on individuals, rather than on schools, businesses and other institutions, to limit viral spread.

Variants: BA.5 is the most recent omicron subvariant, and it’s quickly become the dominant strain in the U.S. Here’s what to know about it, and why vaccines may only offer limited protection.

Vaccines: Vaccines: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that everyone age 12 and older get an updated coronavirus booster shot designed to target both the original virus and the omicron variant circulating now. You’re eligible for the shot if it has been at least two months since your initial vaccine or your last booster. An initial vaccine series for children under 5, meanwhile, became available this summer. Here’s what to know about how vaccine efficacy could be affected by your prior infections and booster history.

Guidance: CDC guidelines have been confusing — if you get covid, here’s how to tell when you’re no longer contagious. We’ve also created a guide to help you decide when to keep wearing face coverings.

Where do things stand? See the latest coronavirus numbers in the U.S. and across the world. The omicron variant is behind much of the recent spread.

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