WHO team arriving in China in January
WHO team arriving in China in January

China has managed to pull off a diplomatic and public relations coup of sorts by getting the World Health Organisation to partially endorse a theory it has tried to push ever since the epicentre of the Covid-19 outbreak was traced to the Chinese city of Wuhan. The 14-member WHO fact-finding team which visited Wuhan to investigate the causes of the outbreak endorsed the official Chinese narrative on three important counts.

One, the team has said that it was “extremely unlikely” that the virus was a bio-engineered virus which was released into the human population either accidentally or otherwise. This has helped China counter the theory, which counted former US President Donald Trump among its supporters, that the virus was a bio weapon aimed at destabilising the economies of rival countries.

Second, it has accepted the possibility that the virus may have infiltrated through imported frozen food. China has been trying to suggest that frozen meat from Australia, a country which it considers a significant threat to its ambitions of dominating the Indian Ocean region, may have been the culprit, an accusation Australia, New Zealand and other major western meat suppliers to China have strongly denied. Third, the team has said that the virus most likely originated in an animal host, most likely bats.

China has been quick to capitalise on the findings. Its official briefing after the WHO team’s report repeatedly stressed the “foreign origin” theory and went so far as to demand that the US be “equally transparent” by allowing WHO teams to investigate the origin and spread of the virus in the US. Despite the belligerent posturing by China, it must be noted that it is by no means off the hook as far as culpability for the pandemic is concerned.

It must be noted that China has continuously blocked attempts by the outside world to mount independent investigations into the outbreak. The WHO team was allowed entry only 15 months after the outbreak began, by which time all evidence on the ground would have long been obliterated. It was not given a free hand, with two members being denied entry and the others put through a two-week quarantine even though they had tested negative before departure.

The team was also not allowed to move independently, with Chinese escorts always around. This would suggest that the responses could have been tailored to suit the official Chinese narrative, especially since the Xi government has cracked down hard on those within its borders who have dared raise questions about the way the Chinese establishment handled the crisis. The wet market in Wuhan, where the first cluster was reported, has been permanently closed and the samples taken then sequestered with the China Centre for Disease Control. And scientists have repeatedly questioned the selective sharing of data and research from the China side.

While independent scrutiny of the WHO report is awaited, the organisation has its task cut out for rebuilding its credibility, particularly after US charges that it has been manipulated by China. The clean chit to China may be premature.

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Free Press Journal