China’s new stance on cooperating with WHO to study virus origin

May 12, 2020 08:08
Photo: Reuters

China’s apparent willingness to cooperate with the World Health Organization in an open investigation into the origin of the Covid-19 virus, asserted repeatedly last week by its foreign ministry, is an encouraging sign that an issue on which the United States and China are at loggerheads may be resolved, perhaps as early as May 18-19 during the annual meeting of the World Health Assembly, the WHO’s decision-making body.

One condition, not unreasonable, set by the Chinese side is that the study cannot be based on “the presumption of guilt” on China’s part.

The ministry spokeswoman, Hua Chunying, asserted that “tracing the origin of the virus is a very complex issue that needs to be assessed by scientists and specialists based on facts and science.” That statement is not controversial.

The United States and other countries calling for an independent investigation – such as the European Union and Australia – should consider this new Chinese position as a highly positive development.

Only on May 1, Dr. Gauden Galea, the WHO representative in China, told Sky News that the world health body knew that China was conducting an investigation but “we have not been asked to join.” Moreover, the Chinese had rejected any suggestion of such cooperation.

Hua’s words, therefore, represent a distinct shift on the part of the Chinese government.

While Beijing was unveiling its new position, in Geneva, the WHO disclosed that it was discussing the possibility of a second mission to China which, according to epidemiologist Maria Van Kerkhove, would “really look at what happened at the beginning in terms of the exposures with different animals.” The WHO official said such a mission was critical because “without knowing where the animal origin is, it’s difficult for us to attempt to prevent this from happening again.”

A lot of details need to be worked out, such as the timing of such a project and the membership of such a WHO delegation.

China doesn’t like the term “independent investigation.” Instead, the foreign ministry spokeswoman called it “a wash-up or a review” to be conducted “at an appropriate time so as to promote international health cooperation and improve global public health governance.”

Despite Beijing’s aversion to an “independent investigation,” if the outcome of any such study is to be credible, then the world needs to be convinced that the international community, that is, the WHO, was leading the study.

The image of the WHO has taken a hit since its director-general appeared to act and speak obsequiously toward China and its leader, President Xi Jinping, earlier this year.

It had to seek permission from China before sending its first delegation to learn the situation of the novel coronavirus in February. Even then, the WHO wasn’t able to decide for itself the composition of its delegation. China tried to tell the world body who could and couldn’t be included.

Because this was a joint mission, the Chinese had their own team of specialists, whose members they themselves chose. However, the Chinese also prepared a list of names of those to be on the international delegation and were unwilling to accept the names presented by the WHO. The final list was a compromise.

In the end, the WHO delegation headed off to China without even knowing if it would be allowed to visit Wuhan, the epicenter of the outbreak. Indeed, it was not on the original itinerary and only added as a last-minute compromise. Clearly China, not the WHO, was in charge.

If there is going to be a second mission, the WHO should make it clear that it will decide on its own the scientists and specialists who will be on its delegation. Certainly, with skepticism of China so high around the world, it is unlikely that member states will agree to let China decide which researchers to include and which ones to keep out.

While the current consensus within the scientific community is that the virus comes from nature, it is necessary for a thorough investigation to answer all questions. Thus, it is vital for China to allow visits to the Wuhan Institute of Virology, from which some believe the virus could have escaped. To declare it off-limits would make the entire investigation a farce in the eyes of some people.

The findings of such a scientific study will benefit the world. It will also help clear the air and ameliorate attitudes toward China.

As long as the work of the researchers is spelled out so there is no misunderstanding, an independent investigation, even if it is called a “review,” should be perfectly acceptable.

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Frank Ching opened The Wall Street Journal’s Bureau in China in 1979. He is now a Hong Kong-based writer on Chinese affairs.