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Beijing Urges WHO Leader Not to Pursue 'Lab Leak' Theory

FILE - Members of the World Health Organization team investigating the origins of the COVID-19 coronavirus visit the closed Huanan Seafood Market in Wuhan, China, Jan. 31, 2021.

China is lashing out at the chief of the World Health Organization for suggesting that more study is needed into the possibility that the coronavirus responsible for the COVID-19 pandemic initially escaped from a laboratory in Wuhan, China.

Global Times, an influential news outlet controlled by China's ruling Communist Party, pointed this week to comments by Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the Ethiopian-born director-general of the WHO, to the effect "that further investigation is needed on the hypothesis of a 'lab leak' being the origin of COVID-19."

The front-page report quoted a Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson urging "the WHO to play a leading role in respecting science."

The criticism is ironic, given that Tedros has been widely accused of being too close to China, including by former U.S. President Donald Trump, who described the WHO leader as "China-centric" in cutting off U.S. funding to the health agency last year.

Beijing's latest broadside appears aimed at remarks by Tedros on March 30, when the WHO released the findings of an investigative team that had spent four weeks in China.

FILE - World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus attends a news conference in Geneva, April 12, 2021.
FILE - World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus attends a news conference in Geneva, April 12, 2021.

Speaking in Geneva, Tedros listed various scenarios to account for the origin of the virus, including that it originated in bats and then infected another animal, leading to widespread contamination in the Huanan Seafood Market in Wuhan.

The WHO director also addressed a theory that the virus could have escaped from a virology laboratory just kilometers from the Huanan market, where similar viruses are being studied.

"Although the team has concluded that a laboratory leak is the least likely hypothesis, this requires further investigation, potentially with additional missions involving specialist experts, which I am ready to deploy," Tedros said.

"The team also visited several laboratories in Wuhan and considered the possibility that the virus entered the human population as a result of a laboratory incident," he said. "However, I do not believe that this assessment was extensive enough. … Further data and studies will be needed to reach more robust conclusions."

Chinese media this week quoted an unnamed Chinese expert who took part in the investigation as saying that Tedros' remarks have "already been used by those with ulterior motives to question the authority and scientific quality" of the report issued by WHO.

The expert warned that "WHO will have to be held accountable if worldwide effort at [virus] origin tracing enters a deadlock."