HONG KONG—China is aggressively advancing alternative theories about the source of the coronavirus that causes Covid-19, muddying the waters as the World Health Organization prepares to launch a long-awaited investigation into the origins of the pandemic.
In recent weeks, Chinese state media, often suggesting the virus came from outside China, have seized on a series of recent studies that show it was spreading outside the country earlier than first assumed.
Government officials have also pushed the theory that the virus could have hitched a ride into the central Chinese city of Wuhan on frozen-food imports. After outbreaks in multiple Chinese cities in recent months including Beijing, Shanghai, Tianjin and elsewhere, authorities pointed to frozen-food packaging as the potential origin.
While infectious disease experts say cold surfaces can be vectors for virus transmission, the WHO and other health authorities say the risk of infection from food or its packaging is thought to be low.
On Tuesday, a Chinese diplomat based in India posted a story about the possibility of cold-chain transmission on Twitter while calling for further investigation into an unsubstantiated fringe theory that the U.S. military was involved in spreading the virus.
“If cold-chain is possible now, Wuhan being framed by virus can’t be ruled out,” wrote the diplomat, Zha Liyou.
Combined with statements by senior U.S. officials advancing unsupported theories that the virus was engineered in a Chinese lab, Beijing’s politicization of the origin question threatens to undermine scientists’ ability to learn lessons from the current pandemic that could help prevent the next one, public-health experts said.
“In the current geopolitical climate, with a mutual blame game going on, it’s impossible for scientists to just do science,” said
an infectious-disease specialist at the Duke-NUS Medical School in Singapore and member of the WHO team that discovered the coronavirus that causes severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS.
Chinese officials began trying to deflect scrutiny over the spread of the coronavirus shortly after the first outbreak was detected in Wuhan. They declined to share data sampled from animals at the Wuhan market where the outbreak was discovered and agreed to support only a WHO investigation into the pandemic’s origins that omitted a country-specific focus.
Beijing’s renewed effort to promote counternarratives about the pandemic’s origins comes in response to a combination of mounting pressures internationally and at home, according to experts in Chinese politics.
“The origin debate is a proxy for the culpability debate and China does not want to be made responsible for the global pandemic,” said
a senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. He pointed to lawsuits filed in U.S. federal courts targeting China over its handling of the coronavirus pandemic.
At the same time, China’s ruling Communist Party is seeking to soothe public opinion domestically, according to
a political scientist specializing in China at the University of Chicago.
“Chinese media has been catering to people’s mass psychology,” Mr. Yang said. “People in China are looking for evidence that can exonerate their country and them.”
China’s state broadcaster, China Central Television, promoted a new study by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, reported by The Wall Street Journal last week, that showed the coronavirus was already infecting people on the U.S. West Coast as early as Dec. 13, 2019, two weeks before doctors in Wuhan began sharing concerns about an unexplained pneumonia spreading in the city.
The topic “coronavirus had already emerged in the U.S. in mid-December” has attracted more than 200 million views on China’s Twitter-like Weibo social media platform. While promoting the story, CCTV didn’t mention that the earliest known Covid-19 case in Wuhan appeared even earlier, on Dec. 1.
Chinese media also reported widely on comments by
the director of the Institute for Biosecurity Research in Halle, Germany, who told German television in November that most Covid-19 cases world-wide could be traced to a mutation of the virus that occurred in Italy.
The reports played down Mr. Kekulé’s observation that the original variant of the virus had come to Italy from China, and that the Italian outbreak likely started in January, more than a month after China’s. Mr. Kekulé didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.
The Communist Party’s flagship newspaper featured a study by scientists with the Chinese Academy of Scientists published on SSRN, the preprint platform of the medical journal The Lancet, that posited the earliest human-to-human transmission occurred on the Indian subcontinent three to four months before the Wuhan outbreak.
The study, which wasn’t peer-reviewed, disappeared from the platform last week. The Lancet said the paper had been removed from SSRN at the request of the authors. The authors didn’t respond to a request for comment. Scientists say it is common practice for authors to remove papers from the platform when the research is shown to be flawed or incomplete.
China’s government isn’t alone in promoting unproven theories about the origins of the pandemic. U.S. Secretary of State
and other American officials have suggested on several occasions that the coronavirus was created in a Chinese lab, despite plentiful independent research indicating the virus most likely evolved in nature.
Public-health experts say the origins of the virus remain mysterious, and it is possible the pathogen did enter China from another country. They say the problem arises when governments put their weight behind hypotheses without the support of strong data.
“If early findings are reported without enough scientific evidence, it causes political confusion,” says
a senior policy researcher and the Tang Chair in China Policy Studies at the RAND Corporation.
The political environment has prompted questions about the efficacy of the planned WHO probe, which has already faced limits imposed by China.
The investigation will be carried out by a team of 10 specialists from the U.S., Germany and other countries selected by the WHO after consultation with the Chinese side. While Beijing has agreed to let the team conduct fieldwork in Wuhan, it hasn’t set a date yet. Until then, they are limited to reviewing the findings of their Chinese counterparts.
The WHO said that regular meetings gave the international mission an opportunity to get updated on past findings by the Chinese researchers.
Pressure within China to find evidence that the virus originated elsewhere could affect the ability of the scientists to conduct independent research, said Mr. Huang of the Council on Foreign Relations. At the same time, he said, it provides fodder to those who are skeptical of the WHO and China to doubt the group’s scientific findings.
“The appearance of a virus could have happened to any country and then spread quickly in this globalized world,” he said. “There is no need to engage in blame games.”
—Liyan Qi contributed to this article.
Write to Sha Hua at firstname.lastname@example.org
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