It would be inaccurate to interpret a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman's remarks on Monday regarding the proposed second-phase novel coronavirus origin tracing by the World Health Organization in China as outright refusal, because in his words, "relevant experts on the Chinese side are studying it carefully".
But, he made it explicit that the WHO should adhere to the spirit of science, professionalism and objectivity, and work with the international community to maintain the serious scientific nature of tracing the origin of the outbreak.
Actually, due to certain countries' politicization of the issue, the work plan on the second phase origins study proposed by the WHO Secretariat is at odds with that approach. It is akin to presumption of guilt to target only China for a second-phase study into the origin of the coronavirus in China, while the United States, which is now known to have had infections earlier than first thought, refuses to allow the WHO to conduct its first study in the country.
There are a number of points the WHO should bear in mind. The 73rd World Health Assembly explicitly requested it to try and determine the zoological origin of the virus and the route of its transmission to humans; the joint WHO-China expert team for virus origin tracing research came to the clear conclusion that a leak from the virology lab in Wuhan was "extremely unlikely" to be the source of the outbreak, and suggested conducting further research around earlier cases globally and further understanding the role of cold chains and frozen foods in the transmission of the virus; and origin tracing is a matter of science, and should be carried out by scientists from all over the world.
In other words, the WHO should adhere to the spirit of science, professionalism, and objectivity and resist the politicization of origin tracing by the U.S. and some of its allies.
Any second-stage origin tracing should not begin until origin tracing studies have been conducted in other countries where the virus was known to be spreading before it was identified in China. And one site in particular — the Fort Detrick biological weapons lab in Maryland, the United States, which has a history of leaks and accidents — needs to be looked at carefully, given a cluster of lung infections in a town nearby just before the lab was temporarily shut down after a routine U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found a series of severe safety breaches.
Asking why the U.S. is yet to invite the WHO for a thorough scrutiny of Fort Detrick, and why the U.S. has been excluded from the probe, the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman urged Washington to face squarely the "voices of the international community including the Chinese people".
The most outstanding obstacle to any meaningful next-step progress in origin tracing, therefore, rests on whether the U.S. will allow an origin tracing field study into what transpired at Fort Detrick and whether the WHO can maintain its commitments to science and professionalism.