AP Takeaways report on how the search for the origins of the coronavirus turned toxic

BEIJING – China’s government has frozen meaningful efforts to determine the origins of the coronavirus pandemic despite publicly saying it supports open scientific inquiry, an Associated Press investigation has found.

The AP relied on thousands of pages of undisclosed emails and documents, leaked recordings and dozens of interviews showing that the freeze began much earlier than previously known — in the early weeks of the outbreak — and that there was as much of political and scientific power struggles in China. international finger pointing.

Crucial initial efforts were hampered as bureaucrats in Wuhan tried to avoid blame from those who misled the central government; the central government, which silenced Chinese scientists and subjected visiting UN officials to staged tours; and the World Health Organization itself, which may have compromised early opportunities to gather crucial information, internal materials obtained by AP show.

Secrecy clouds the beginning of the COVID-19 outbreak. Even the date when Chinese authorities first began searching for the origins of the virus is unclear. The first publicly known search for the coronavirus took place on December 31, 2019, when scientists from the Chinese Center for Disease Control visited the Wuhan market, where many early COVID-19 cases emerged.

But WHO officials learned of an earlier inspection of the market on Dec. 25, 2019, according to a recording of a confidential WHO meeting provided to the AP. In the recording, Peter Ben Embarek, the WHO’s top virus expert, told colleagues that Chinese officials that day were “looking at what was for sale in the market, whether all sellers had licenses (and) whether there was any illegal trade in wild animals.” .”

Ben Embarek said the investigation was “not routine” and that the WHO would “try to find out what happened.” Such an investigation has never been publicly mentioned by Chinese authorities or the WHO.

The WHO said in an email that it was “not aware” of any investigation on December 25, 2019. Other experts said any visit to the market that day would be significant, especially if animal samples were taken, as these could provide crucial evidence of how COVID-19 jumped to humans.

Zhang Yongzhen was the first scientist to publish a series of the COVID-19 virus. A day after writing a memo calling on health authorities to act quickly, China’s top health official ordered his laboratory closed.

“They used their official power against me and our colleagues,” Zhang wrote in an email to AP by Edward Holmes, an Australian virologist.

There was a growing feeling among Chinese doctors and scientists that Beijing was hunting for a scapegoat. The government has opened an investigation into top health officials, according to two former and current Chinese CDC employees and three others familiar with the matter. Chinese CDC workers were encouraged to report colleagues who had mishandled the outbreak to Communist Party disciplinary bodies, according to two of the people.

As criticism of China grew, the Chinese government has rejected blame. Instead of firing health officials, they declared their virus response a success and closed investigations into the officials with few job losses.

“There were no real reforms because implementing reforms means admitting mistakes,” said a public health expert in contact with top Chinese health officials who asked not to be identified due to the sensitivity of the matter.

Early on, Chinese scientists were silenced and politicians took control.

When the WHO negotiated a mission to investigate COVID-19 with China in early 2020, it was the Chinese Foreign Ministry, not the scientists, who decided the terms. China denied a visa to WHO’s Ben Embarek, then the agency’s top expert on animal viruses. According to the draft agendas obtained by AP, almost all items related to an origin search have been removed from the itinerary.

Leading the WHO visit was Liang Wannian, an epidemiologist close to top Chinese officials who was widely seen as pushing the party line rather than science-backed policies, according to nine people familiar with the situation and who declined to be named due to the sensitivity of the matter. Liang also ordered the Wuhan market to be disinfected before samples could be collected and promoted an unlikely theory that COVID-19 came from frozen food imported into China.

During a train journey with Dr. Bruce Aylward, a senior adviser to WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, lobbied Liang at the U.N. agency to praise China’s response in his public report. The new part was so flattering that colleagues emailed Aylward suggesting he “tone it back a bit.”

By the time WHO led another visit to Wuhan in January 2021, the hunt for its origins had become highly politicized. Liang, the Chinese official responsible for two previous WHO visits, organized market workers to tell WHO experts that no live wildlife had been sold and removed recent photos of wild animals at the market from the report.

The WHO team concluded that a laboratory leak was “extremely unlikely.” But just months later, WHO chief Tedros said it was “premature” to dismiss the lab leak theory and urged China to be more transparent, angering Chinese officials.

According to a letter obtained by AP, China has told the WHO that future missions to determine the origins of COVID-19 should take place elsewhere. Since then, global cooperation has come to a standstill.

According to ten researchers, medical experts and health officials, Chinese scientists are still under severe pressure. Researchers who published articles about the coronavirus came into contact with Chinese authorities. Others were not allowed to travel abroad for conferences and WHO meetings.

The head of the China CDC Institute of Viral Disease was forced to retire over the release of sensitive market data, according to a former Chinese CDC official who declined to be named for fear of repercussions.

“It has to do with the origin, so they are still concerned,” the official said. “If you try to get to the bottom of it, what if it turns out to be from China?”

Cheng reported from Geneva.