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Exclusive: Intl experts under political pressure that may undermine consensus on WHO virus origins report, says Chinese member of joint team – Global Times

WHO Photo:VCG

WHO Photo:VCG

Chinese experts from the WHO-China joint expert team were not notified about next week’s release of the full report on COVID-19 origins study before the release was announced by a WHO official, which was “quite surprising,” as such work should be conducted on the basis of direct communication between Chinese and foreign experts, a Chinese expert from the team told the Global Times exclusively on Saturday.

During communications with foreign experts, the Chinese expert noticed palpable “political pressure” on the international experts, and therefore the Chinese side was concerned the final report may deviate from the previous consensus, the expert said.

“I was quite surprised by this announcement,” the Chinese expert on the WHO-China joint expert team, who preferred not to be named, told the Global Times.

Work on the report should be conducted on the basis of direct communication between Chinese and foreign experts, and yet Chinese experts had received no relevant information, the expert said. Instead, a WHO official went public with the announcement of the report’s release. 

Since the WHO foreign experts arrived in China in January to study the COVID-19 origins, Chinese and international experts have established good work and personal relationships, with both sides cooperating smoothly toward positive results and a broad consensus, the Chinese expert said. 

Time constraints prevented them from finishing the writing of a full report, but a consensus was reached on the report abstract’s major findings, conclusions and future work suggestions for joint study, all of which were unveiled at a joint press conference of the team on February 9. 

The Chinese expert said that the two sides agreed that experts from China and WHO would continue to write the full text of the report based on the previous consensus, but a full draft report in English was not sent to China until March 17. The report has around 300 pages and has no Chinese version, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian revealed Friday.

Peter Ben Embarek (center) talks with Liang Wannian (left) and Marion Koopmans (right) after a press conference to wrap up a visit by an international team of experts from the World Health Organization (WHO) in the city of Wuhan, in Central China’s Hubei Province on Tuesday. Photo: AFP

Peter Ben Embarek (center) talks with Liang Wannian (left) and Marion Koopmans (right) after a press conference to wrap up a visit by an international team of experts from the World Health Organization (WHO) in the city of Wuhan, in Central China’s Hubei Province. Photo: AFP

In communication with foreign experts, “we can feel that international experts are facing political pressure from some aspects,” the expert said. “So there seems to be a reason for the delayed report beyond scientific research.”

The Chinese side did not know “exactly who is putting pressure on the international experts,” he said. “It could be from several countries. We’re concerned that the final report may deviate from the previous consensus.”

Such a divergence would be greatly disrespectful to the efforts of the joint expert team as well as to the spirit of scientific endeavor, the expert said. 

It would also undermine global research on tracking virus origins, he said. 

“Tracing virus origins is a matter of science, which should not and cannot be interfered with by politics,” the expert said. “Chinese and foreign scientists are disgusted by politicized acts.”

Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said at a routine press conference on Friday that China immediately checked with relevant parties when the WHO official announced that the report on tracing the origins of the virus would be released next week. 

“To my knowledge, Chinese experts received an English version of the report from WHO experts on March 17, totaling around 300 pages,” Zhao said. “As we speak, there is no Chinese version available yet.”

WHO was reportedly working on the translation, Zhao said. “Whether the report will be released next week depends on the discussions between Chinese and foreign experts,” he said. 

Tracing the virus origins was never a simple task and required long-term joint efforts by scientists, Liang Wannian, team leader of the Chinese side of the WHO-China joint expert team, told the Global Times previously in an exclusive interview. 

Lead Chinese scientist of WHO joint team addresses key issues ahead of joint report release Graphic: Xu Zihe/GT

Lead Chinese scientist of WHO joint team addresses key issues ahead of joint report release Graphic: Xu Zihe/GT

“At the beginning of this research, we established principles of ‘four togetherness,’ meaning we plan together, undertake fieldwork together, draft the report together and release publications together,” Liang said.

Liang previously predicted a possible delay to the report’s release, citing the lengthy contents. “As scientists, we want to present a complete, rigorous and scientific report at the maximum level, so this process takes some time,” he said.

Liang believes that some politicians and media “have insisted on politicizing the scientific issue of tracing the sources of COVID-19, regardless of scientific facts, for their own personal gain, arbitrarily misinterpreting the scientific findings and reports of our joint team, which is a huge disrespect to the work of our scientists.” 

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