China dismisses latest claim that lab leak likely caused COVID pandemic

China has accused the United States of politicising the coronavirus pandemic again, in response to reports that the US Energy Department had concluded that an accidental laboratory leak had likely triggered the spread of COVID-19 worldwide.

The rebuke on Monday (US time) marks the latest salvo in a running war of words between the two countries over the origins of the virus, an issue that has taken on as much of a political dimension as a scientific one as the rivalry between the two superpowers deepens.

Security personnel guard the entrance to the Wuhan Institute of Virology.Credit:AP

“COVID tracing is a scientific issue that should not be politicised,” Mao Ning, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson, said of the Energy Department’s conclusion. She then repeated calls for the United States to “stop defaming China” by raising the lab leak theory.

China’s response adds to the growing friction between Washington and Beijing, following a spy balloon incident and US accusations that China was considering supplying Russia with weapons and ammunition for use in Ukraine.

It also comes at a time when lawmakers in Washington are increasing their scrutiny of China with a new House select committee on competition with China. In addition, a hearing is set for Tuesday in the House Foreign Affairs Committee over how to counter the Chinese Communist Party’s “aggression”.

The debate over where the coronavirus emerged from remains highly divisive, fuelled in part by distrust over the Chinese government and its lack of transparency — as well as by anti-Chinese rhetoric and conspiracy theories fanned by the Trump administration. China has also spread conspiracy theories by suggesting that COVID may have been a product of US biological weapons programs.

Some scientists say the most compelling evidence available today supports the most prevalent theory, that the virus came from live animals stored at a large market in Wuhan, China. No evidence has emerged directly linking the pandemic to a lab.

However, suspicions persist about a lab leak because of two research facilities in Wuhan that have handled highly infectious diseases: the Wuhan Institute of Virology and the Wuhan CDC lab.

Some scientists say the Wuhan Institute of Virology conducted risky experiments. Shi Zhengli, the head of the lab and a top Chinese virus expert, dismissed the claims of a leak in a brief interview with The New York Times in 2021.

“How on earth can I offer up evidence for something where there is no evidence?” she said.

A security person moves journalists away from the Wuhan Institute of Virology in February 2021.Credit:AP

China has repeatedly dismissed the lab leak theory as politically motivated misinformation designed to smear China. It says the theory has no basis in scientific fact and points to a World Health Organisation report released in 2021 that determined that it was “extremely unlikely” that the pandemic emerged accidentally from a Chinese laboratory.

The report, which set out to investigate the origins of the coronavirus, has been the subject of much debate because China is believed to have heavily influenced its findings by appointing half of the scientists involved in the project.

Faced with widespread criticism for not doing more to prevent the pandemic, China has also sought to deflect blame by spreading a conspiracy theory that the virus may have been the result of research at a US military lab in Fort Detrick, Maryland. The claim, which was first made in March 2020, was repeated by a Foreign Ministry spokesperson as recently as this month.

At the Energy Department, new intelligence prompted it to change its position from being undecided about how the virus emerged. Officials did not share that intelligence but said the agency made its conclusion with only “low confidence”.

US spy agencies are not in agreement about the origins of the virus. The FBI has concluded with moderate confidence that the virus traces back to the Wuhan Institute of Virology, whereas four other US intelligence agencies and the National Intelligence Council have concluded with low confidence that COVID most likely emerged through natural transmission, the director of national intelligence’s office announced in October 2021.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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