China Demands U.S. ‘Stop Rehashing’ Coronavirus Lab Leak Theory After Energy Dept. Report

An employee works in a research and development lab of Beijing Applied Biological Technologies, a firm which is developing COVID-19 molecular diagnostic test kits, during a government organized tour for journalists in Beijing, Thursday, May 14, 2020. China reported three new coronavirus cases Thursday while moving to reopen for business and schools. (AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein)

The Chinese Foreign Ministry on Monday dismissed a report from the Wall Street Journal this weekend claiming the U.S.  Department of Energy had concluded the Wuhan coronavirus had begun spreading as the result of a laboratory leak in China, insisting that entertaining the theory is akin to “smearing China” and demanding America “stop politicizing origins-tracing.”

The official stance of the Chinese government is that the coronavirus pandemic began as a result of a laboratory leak at a U.S. Army facility in Fort Detrick, Maryland, and Washington hid the spread of the disease by misdiagnosing it as lung injuries caused by e-cigarettes.

Zhao Lijian, the Foreign Ministry spokesman most vocal about spreading this conspiracy theory, was demoted to a low-profile job at the Department of Boundary and Ocean Affairs in January, an indication that the Communist Party may be changing its attitude towards diplomacy. Mao Ning, Zhao’s replacement at the Foreign Ministry, did not mention the Fort Detrick theory during her remarks on Monday.

FILE – Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Mao Ning gestures during a press conference at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Beijing, Thursday, Oct 13, 2022. China said Tuesday, Feb. 7, 2023, it will “resolutely safeguard its legitimate rights and interests” over the shooting down of a suspected Chinese spy balloon by the United States, as relations between the two countries deteriorate further. (AP Photo/Liu Zheng, File)

“The origins-tracing of SARS-CoV-2 [the virus that causes Wuhan coronavirus disease] is about science and should not be politicized. China has always supported and participated in global science-based origins-tracing,” Mao said in response to a question regarding the Department of Energy report. “’A laboratory origin of the pandemic was considered to be extremely unlikely’ is a science-based, authoritative conclusion reached by the experts of the W.H.O.-China joint mission after field trips to the lab in Wuhan and in-depth communication with researchers.”

“It was accurately recorded in the mission’s report and has received extensive recognition from the international community,” she claimed.

“Certain parties should stop rehashing the ‘lab leak’ narrative, stop smearing China and stop politicizing origins-tracing,” Mao concluded.

The Wall Street Journal claimed to obtain a classified report on Sunday in which the Department of Energy concluded that a leak at the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV), a laboratory known to have been experimenting with bat coronaviruses shortly before the pandemic, is likely to have been how the pandemic began. The report noted that the Department of Energy came to that conclusion with “low confidence,” given a lack of access to the WIV and the destruction of critical evidence by the Chinese government.

“The Energy Department now joins the Federal Bureau of Investigation in saying the virus likely spread via a mishap at a Chinese laboratory,” the Journal reported. “Four other agencies, along with a national intelligence panel, still judge that it was likely the result of a natural transmission, and two are undecided.”

The Energy Department made its judgment with “low confidence,” according to people who have read the classified report.

The U.S. government had previously made public statements indicating an interest in investigating the WIV, most prominently the January 2021 publication of a fact sheet by the State Department revealing that Washington had reason to believe multiple workers at the facility had been hospitalized with unknown illnesses in November 2019. The fact sheet, since deleted from State Department pages after the inauguration of President Joe Biden, asserted that Washington had “reason to believe that several researchers inside the WIV became sick in autumn 2019, before the first identified case of the outbreak, with symptoms consistent with both [Wuhan coronavirus] and common seasonal illnesses.”

“Starting in at least 2016 – and with no indication of a stop prior to the [coronavirus] outbreak – WIV researchers conducted experiments involving RaTG13, the bat coronavirus identified by the WIV in January 2020 as its closest sample to SARS-CoV-2 (96.2% similar),” the fact sheet read. “The WIV has a published record of conducting ‘gain-of-function’ research to engineer chimeric viruses. But the WIV has not been transparent or consistent about its record of studying viruses most similar to the [Wuhan coronavirus], including ‘RaTG13,’ which it sampled from a cave in Yunnan Province in 2013 after several miners died of SARS-like illness.”

Mao’s claim that the “science-based, authoritative conclusion” on the beginning of the pandemic was that a laboratory leak was unlikely is a reference to a 2021 report by the World Health Organization (W.H.O.) that Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus himself as criticized as insufficient. The report, published in March 2021, was a result of a visit to Wuhan by W.H.O. investigators. Reports at the time revealed that Chinese Communist Party officials did not give the investigators any freedom to research independently, gave them very little time at the WIV, and had already destroyed so much evidence in the past year since the pandemic began that the visit yielded little useful information.

The resulting report from the W.H.O. Wuhan visit concluded that a leak at the WIV was an “unlikely” origin story for the virus, though it did not detail why the researchers arrived at that conclusion. The report concluded instead that the likeliest part to infecting humans was that the animal in which the virus first originated infected a third-party animal, which then infected humans. The investigators pointedly noted that, in testing 80,000 animals in 31 Chinese provinces, they were unable to find a single animal testing positive for the Wuhan coronavirus in the wild.

“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, the W.H.O. chief, said following the publication of the report, insisting it was “not extensive enough.”

In July of that year, Tedros again insisted that dismissing the laboratory leak theory was unsound, accusing those demanding an end to investigations of that nature of a “premature push” to silence the theory.

“I was a lab technician myself, I’m an immunologist, and I have worked in the lab, and lab accidents happen,” Tedros insisted. “It’s common.”

The W.H.O. announced that it would begin a new investigation into the origins of the virus in September 2021, but that project never yielded any tangible results and the W.H.O. quietly shelved it this month, citing “the politics” around it.