China blasts U.S. agency’s COVID-19 ‘lab leak’ report

Ananth Krishnan

The U.S. Energy Department ‘concluded that the pandemic most likely arose from a laboratory leak’; Beijing accuses Washington of ‘smearing’ the country and politicising scientific research

 China blasts U.S. agency’s COVID-19 ‘lab leak’ report

Samples collected from people being tested for COVID-19 in Liaoning province on February 12. AFPSTR

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Tuesday, 28th February 2023
Page No. 15
Delhi Print Edition

China on Monday accused the U.S. of “smearing” the country and “politicising” scientific research, after a government agency in Washington published a report concluding that the COVID-19 pandemic likely began from a laboratory accident.

A classified intelligence report recently provided to the White House and members of Congress, reported The Wall Street Journal on Monday, said the U.S. Energy Department “concluded that the…pandemic most likely arose from a laboratory leak”.

The newspaper said the Energy Department’s conclusion “is the result of new intelligence and is significant because the agency has considerable scientific expertise and oversees a network of U.S. national laboratories, some of which conduct advanced biological research.” At the same time, It added, the Energy Department made its judgment with “low confidence”.

China’s Foreign Ministry slammed the report as being “politicised”. “A laboratory origin of the pandemic was considered to be extremely unlikely is a science-based, authoritative conclusion reached by the experts of the WHO-China joint mission after field trips to the lab in Wuhan and in-depth communication with researchers. It was accurately recorded in the mission’s report and has received extensive recognition from the international community,” spokesperson Mao Ning said. “Certain parties should stop rehashing the ‘lab leak’ narrative, stop smearing China and stop politicising origins-tracing.”

Chinese officials, however, have also suggested the virus could have lab origins — except they have pointed the finger at U.S. facilities. Chinese state media outlets have widely publicised U.S. “lab leak” theories, so much so that the widespread view among the public in China is that the virus did not, as most of the world’s scientific community has concluded, originate in Wuhan.

‘Disparate judgments’

The Journal report said the new “shift by the Energy Department, which previously was undecided on how the virus emerged,” had been“noted in an update to a 2021 document by Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines’s office”, adding that it “highlights how different parts of the intelligence community have arrived at disparate judgments about the pandemic’s origin.”

While the Energy Department and Federal Bureau of Investigation have concluded a lab leak as the most likely origin, four other agencies believe it was “the result of a natural transmission”, reflecting a divide within agencies that comprise the U.S. intelligence community.

The scientific community has also continued to debate the origins without, as yet, a conclusive picture on the emergence of the virus.

Some virologists have suggested natural, or zoonotic, origins were the most likely scenario, considering how past pandemics spread and the fact that the first major site of spread was a seafood market in Wuhan where live animals were sold. Studies have also suggested there were two parallel strains passed to humans from animals at the market.

However, others have pointed to the location of a top Chinese research laboratory in Wuhan, coupled with the fact that the animal intermediate source at the market, three years on, has yet to be identified, to suggest a lab leak could not be ruled out and needed deeper investigation.

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