BEIJING – China fired back at the U.S. on Sunday over allegations from the White House that Beijing withheld some information about the coronavirus outbreak from World Health Organization investigators.
In a statement on Saturday, White House National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said Washington had “deep concerns about the way in which the early findings of the COVID-19 investigation were communicated and questions about the process used to reach them.”
“It is imperative that this report be independent, with expert findings free from intervention or alteration by the Chinese government," he said, referring to the WHO mission investigating the origins of the pandemic in the central city of Wuhan, where the coronavirus was first detected late in 2019.
"To better understand this pandemic and prepare for the next one, China must make available its data from the earliest days of the outbreak." Sullivan's statement said.
China responded Sunday with a statement from its Washington Embassy that said the U.S. had already “gravely damaged international cooperation on COVID-19" and was now “pointing fingers at other countries who have been faithfully supporting the WHO and at the WHO itself.”
While it welcomed President Joe Biden's decision to reverse the Trump administration's move to leave the WHO, China hopes the U.S. will “hold itself to the highest standards, take a serious, earnest, transparent and responsible attitude, shoulder its rightful responsibility, support the WHO’s work with real actions and make due contribution to the international cooperation on COVID-19," the statement said.
Following allegations of Chinese withholding of data in The New York Times and other media outlets, investigation team member Peter Daszak tweeted, “This was NOT my experience on @WHO mission."
“As lead of animal/environment working group I found trust & openness w/ my China counterparts. We DID get access to critical new data throughout. We DID increase our understanding of likely spillover pathways," Daszak tweeted.
Another team member, Thea Koelsen Fischer of Denmark, also said that had not been her experience and implied some comments had been misrepresented in the media.
“We DID build up a good relationship in the Chinese/Int Epi-team! Allowing for heated arguments reflects a deep level of engagement in the room. Our quotes are intendedly twisted casting shadows over important scientific work," Fischer tweeted.
While in Wuhan, Koelsen Fischer said she did not get to see the raw data and had to rely on an analysis of the data that was presented to her. But she said that would be true in most countries.
The British-born Daszak, a zoologist who now works in New York, affirmed Fischer's remarks, tweeting: “It’s disappointing to spend time w/ journalists explaining key findings of our exhausting month-long work in China, to see our colleagues selectively misquoted to fit a narrative that was prescribed before the work began. Shame on you @nytimes."
Daszak had previously worked with the deputy director of the Wuhan Institute of Virology, Shi Zhengli, to track down the origins of severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, which originated in China and led to the 2003 outbreak of the disease. He earlier told The Associated Press that the WHO team enjoyed a greater level of openness than they had anticipated, and that they were granted full access to all sites and personnel they requested.
The 10-nation WHO team last week departed Wuhan after nearly a month. It visited markets, hospitals and research centers, including the highly secure Wuhan Institute of Virology that has been the subject of speculation because of its large collection of bat virus specimens.
In their comments while in China, team members said they had some new insights into the origins of the pandemic that has killed more than 2.3 million people, but that major questions are still unanswered.
The mission was intended to be an initial step in the process of understanding the origins of the virus, which scientists have posited may have passed to humans through a wild animal, such as a pangolin or bamboo rat. They said transmission directly from bats to humans or through the trade in frozen food products are also possibilities, but an alternate theory that the virus leaked from a Chinese lab was unlikely.
The WHO team’s visit was politically sensitive for Beijing, which is concerned about being blamed for alleged missteps in its early response to the outbreak. An AP investigation has found that the Chinese government put limits on research into the outbreak and ordered scientists not to speak to reporters.
This story has been corrected to show that the White House national security adviser's statement was issued on Saturday, not Friday.