W.H.O. Defends China from Accusations of Hiding Coronavirus Data

In this Jan. 31, 2021, file photo, a security guard waves for journalists to clear the road after a convoy carrying the World Health Organization team entered the Huanan Seafood Market on the third day of a field visit in Wuhan in central China's Hubei province. A member of the …
AP Photo/Ng Han Guan, File

Chinese state media on Sunday gleefully quoted members of the World Health Organization (W.H.O.) defending China from their own colleagues’ allegations that Beijing withheld important source data from investigators researching the origins of the coronavirus in Wuhan.

The Chinese presented their visitors with an analysis of the earliest recorded coronavirus cases but would not allow them to view the raw data. The Chinese claimed some of these records and samples have been destroyed.

The W.H.O. investigators who made these comments took pains to avoid directly accusing the Chinese of lying to them, but several of the foreign scientists suggested there were heated discussions with their hosts in Wuhan about the raw data and original records that were not provided.

China’s state-run Global Times pushed back on Sunday by quoting two members of the W.H.O. team who accused American reporters of misunderstanding or deliberately misinterpreting their comments. One of them was Thea Fischer, the Danish epidemiologist who had previously alluded to having angry debates with Chinese officials and emotions running “really high” during the mission to Wuhan. 

Fischer accused the New York Times of misinterpreting her comments to create drama where none existed. She insisted her team had a “good relationship” with the Chinese and said those “heated arguments” merely reflected “a deep level of engagement in the room.”

“Our quotes are intendedly twisted, casting shadows over important scientific work,” Fischer complained.

Fischer’s complaint was seconded with a “Hear! Hear!” by British zoologist Peter Daszak.

Daszak insisted he found “trust and openness” with his Chinese counterparts during the W.H.O. mission to Wuhan. “We DID get access to critical new data throughout. We DID increase our understanding of likely spillover pathways,” he wrote.

The Global Times applauded Daszak and Fischer for defending the Chinese, mixing their comments with statements from Chinese commentators to blast the American mainstream press, which the Chinese propagandists improbably depicted as willing participants in some sort of conspiracy to make Beijing look bad:

“Throughout the WHO expert team’s trip in Wuhan, Western media’s goal had been to push their theories that China is guilty of causing the COVID-19 pandemic and hiding information,” Peking University professor Zhang Yiwu told the Global Times on Sunday.

As the results WHO experts released at the press conference were opposite to what the Western media were looking forward to, some Western media become so desperate that they made such false report, twisting experts’ words, to continue hyping their conspiracy theories about China, Zhang noted.

Countries that accused China of trying to hide information or prevent WHO experts from investigating would not even allow a WHO expert team to enter their countries to investigate, Zhang said, slamming their double standards.

Another Global Times editorial hammered out on the same day quoted Daszak to attack the Biden administration, which is supposedly complicit in the grand conspiracy to smear China because National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan expressed “deep concerns about the way in which the early findings of the COVID-19 [Chinese coronavirus] investigation were communicated and questions about the process used to reach them.”

The Global Times wailed that President Joe Biden and his team have clearly been consumed by the irrational anti-China biases of his predecessor, Donald Trump:

Identifying the origins of COVID-19 is a serious matter requiring hard and scientific work. But the US has been politicizing this scientific work, presupposing and spreading the political narrative that the virus originated in China. Washington has strived to make the WHO’s identification of the virus origins a process to justify the US’ own stance.

As the WHO refused to cooperate, the former Trump administration fell out with the organization. The Democratic administration of the US restored the relationship with the WHO, and vowed to respect science. But it seems that the current administration’s actual attitude still cannot reverse the track set by its predecessor. 

The current US administration has continued the Trump administration’s practices of passing the buck to China. It has revealed its intention to continue stigmatizing China with the COVID-19 pandemic and thus weaken China’s influence around the world. The difference is that they are restrained in words. But the anti-scientific attitude is almost untouched. 

Neither of these Global Times articles had anything to say about Dominic Dwyer, the Australian microbiologist and W.H.O. investigator who most clearly accused the Chinese of withholding raw data. Dwyer said the data given to his team was “not necessarily enough to do the sorts of analyses you would do” and said it was unusual for source documents to be withheld from international science teams.

U.K. Daily Mail journalist Ian Birrell on Sunday published a roundup of scientists from around the world who have been strongly critical of the W.H.O. mission to Wuhan. Some of them branded the investigation a “charade” to cover up Chinese malfeasance and help Beijing push its own narratives about the coronavirus, including bizarre theories that the disease originated elsewhere and was either accidentally or deliberately shipped to Wuhan. 

At a minimum, these critics accused the W.H.O. team of being far too trusting of their Chinese hosts and much too eager to rule out the possibility that the Chinese coronavirus originated from the high-security virology lab near Wuhan.

The Daily Mail, among other critics, has been especially skeptical of Daszak, who presides over an organization called the Eco Health Alliance which has long-standing research and financial ties with the Wuhan Institute of Virology. 

Another member of the W.H.O. team, Dutch virologist Marion Koopmans, has worked as an adviser to the Chinese government and worked on studies that received Chinese funding. Koopmans angrily denied these relationships could compromise her objectivity, pointing out that she has also worked as a scientific adviser to European and American government agencies.

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