Beijing has stepped up efforts not only to deter new outbreaks but also to form the narrative of when and where the pandemic started, as a World Health Organization (WHO) team prepares to visit China to investigate the origins of COVID-19.
The first time Chinese coronavirus had been detected at the end of 2019 in the city of Wuhan, China rejected the criticism. However, in a major climbdown, the foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying, on Monday expressed the country’s desire to welcome the WHO team.
But experts said the investigators were unlikely to be able to scrutinize some of the more delicate aspects of the epidemic in the midst of simmering international tensions, with Beijing eager to escape responsibility for a virus that has killed more than 1.8 million people around the world.
“Even before this investigation, top officials from both sides have been very polarized in their opinions on the origins of the outbreak,” said Yanzhong Huang, senior fellow of the International Relations Council, a U.S. think tank.
“They must be politically knowledgeable and draw conclusions acceptable to all major parties,” he said.
As others continue to combat infection, China has vigorously addressed flare-ups. The city of Shenyang scrapped whole neighborhoods after a new case cluster last week, forcing all non-essential staff to remain at home.
Senior diplomat Wang Yi praised the anti-pandemic efforts on Saturday, saying China not only curbed domestic infections but also “took the lead in building a global anti-epidemic defense” by providing more than 150 countries with assistance.
But mindful of the criticism that China has faced worldwide, Wang has also become the highest-ranking official to challenge a consensus on the source of COVID-19, saying “more and more studies” show that it has originated in multiple regions.
China is also the only country that claims that COVID-19 can be transmitted through cold chain imports, with a country that blames new outbreaks in Beijing and Dalian for contaminated shipments-even though the WHO has reduced those risks.
China was accused of a cover-up that delayed its initial response, allowing the virus to continue spreading.
With only a handful of studies into the sources of COVID-19 made accessible to the public, the subject remains sensitive.
There have also been indications, however, that China is prepared to share details that contradict the official image.
Research by China’s Center for Disease Control last week reported that blood samples contained COVID-19 antibodies from 4.43 percent of Wuhan’s population, suggesting that the city’s infection rates were much higher than originally recognized.
However, scientists said that China must also share any results that indicate that COVID-19 circulated domestically long before it was officially reported in December 2019.
An Italian study found that a few months before China’s first official event, COVID-19 may have been in Europe. The paper was used by Chinese state media to endorse theories that COVID-19 emerged overseas and reached China via tainted frozen food or foreign athletes competing in October 2019 at the World Military Games in Wuhan.
Raina MacIntyre, head of the Biosecurity Research Program of the Kirby Institute in Australia, said the investigation needed to draw “a comprehensive global picture of the epidemiological clues,” including some evidence before December 2019 that COVID-19 was present outside China.
Political problems, however, indicate that much leeway is unlikely to be provided to investigate one possibility, that the outbreak was triggered by a leak at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, MacIntyre said.
She said, “I think it is unlikely that all viruses in the laboratory will be made available to the team at that time.” “So I don’t think the truth will ever be known to us.”