On April 7, 2021, a community of scientists and other experts released an open letter, which I co-organized, calling for a full and unrestricted investigation into all Covid-19 origin hypotheses with full access to relevant records, samples, and personnel within China and, as appropriate, beyond. Rather than welcoming our recommendations as an opportunity to better understand how this terrible pandemic began for the benefit of all people and all nations, however, Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs Spokesman Zhao Lijian instead chose to attack our group — and me personally — while stating that the Chinese authorities have demonstrated exemplary “openness and transparency.”
But instead of demonstrating the kind of openness and transparency that could have prevented or mitigated the pandemic, the Chinese government has fought to suppress the most basic information since the earliest days of the outbreak. If Spokesman Zhao is serious about his government’s commitment to openness and transparency, I invite him to answer the following questions:
- The easiest way to prove that the pandemic did not stem from an accidental lab incident would be by providing full access to all relevant laboratory records and biological samples from the Wuhan Institute of Virology and other Wuhan labs working with coronaviruses. Why has this type of access been denied? Can you commit to making these resources available immediately?
- Although the Wuhan Institute of Virology viral databases are particularly essential for any open and transparent investigation into the origins of the pandemic, these databases were taken offline and made inaccessible in September 2019. Can you explain why China has hidden this critical information and did not give the WHO-organized international committee access to these databases?
- United States intelligence agencies and State Department announced their joint finding on January 15, 2021 that the Chinese People’s Liberation Army was involved with classified research at the Wuhan Institute of Virology. This assertion was flatly denied by Wuhan Institute of Virology Center for Emerging Infectious Diseases Director Shi Zhengli. Given that much of the Chinese government’s case that the SARS-Cov-2 virus did not accidentally escape from the Wuhan Institute of Virology is based on Dr. Shi’s credibility, the undermining of that credibility would raise serious new concerns about the origin of the pandemic. Do you stand by Dr. Shi’s claim that the Chinese military was not involved with the Wuhan Institute of Virology in any way prior to the outbreak?
- All governments have a tendency to protect themselves against unflattering information, but only some of them resort to aggressive suppression of the media. Zhang Zan, a Chinese citizen journalist arrested by Chinese authorities in May for asking tough questions about the origin of the pandemic and accused of “picking quarrels and provoking troubles,” was sentenced to four years in prison on December 28, 2020. According to Quartz: Three other citizen journalists—Chen Qiushi, Fang Bin, and Li Zehua—all disappeared in February as soon as their coverage of Wuhan during the pandemic started to gain traction online (although some have since resurfaced). In light of your commitment to openness and transparency, are you willing to call for Zhang’s immediate release and to encourage Chinese journalists to play a more central role in understanding how this terrible tragedy began?
- On January 3, 2020, China’s National Health Commission ordered Chinese scientific institutions not to publish any information related to the novel coronavirus and ordered labs to transfer any samples they had to designated testing institutions or destroy them, creating an effective gag order on Chinese scientists that lasts to this day. Can you affirm your government’s support for the right of Chinese scientists and others to share their knowledge and expertise freely about the origins of the pandemic?
- In many situations, people with the most intimate knowledge of a given crisis are afraid to speak up for fear of repercussions. In these contexts, confidential whistleblower mechanisms can provide a safe way for essential knowledge to be provided. Can you commit your government’s support for the establishment of an international whistleblower system with which Chinese scientists and other experts could share essential information without fear?
- As you know, the closest known genetic relative to the SARS-CoV-2 virus is the RaTG13 virus, which was sampled from the Mojiang mine in Yunnan province, over a thousand miles south of Wuhan. Six Chinese miners exposed to bat guano in that mine became sick with COVID-19-like pneumonia symptoms following exposure in 2012, and three of them died. Eight other coronaviruses which are all closely related to SARS-CoV-2 virus were later sampled from the same mine by the WIV. Although this fact pattern raises the distinct possibility that essential clues regarding the origin of the pandemic could be found through extensive sampling in the Mojian mine, access to that mine has been entirely cut off and samples from it have been forcibly taken from scientists. Can you commit that the international scientific community will have full access to study and sample the Mojiang mine?
- Our scientific understanding of how the outbreak began would be greatly enhanced by unrestricted access to anonymized health records and blood samples from Hubei province from the second half of 2019. Because the Chinese government has already made these records available in other contexts, it is difficult to imagine why these resources can not be made accessible to international experts. Can you confirm that the WHO-organized international committee will be given anonymized access to all relevant health records and blood samples from Hubei province from the second half of 2019?
- Following the release of the joint international committee/Chinese government report on March 30, 2021, WHO Director General Dr. Tedros Adhanom stated that he believed the study had not sufficiently considered the possibility that an accidental lab incident in Wuhan had potentially sparked the pandemic and asserted that he would appoint additional experts to more fully examine that hypothesis. Can you pledge your government’s full support for this process and confirm that you will provide visas and full access to all necessary resources for these experts?
- All people and all nations would be beneficiaries of our gaining a far deeper understanding of the origins of this devastating pandemic. Even by the admission of the members of the WHO-organized international committee, however, the current study process does not in any way constitute that type of full and unrestricted investigation. In light of your commitment to openness and transparency, can you commit your government’s support for a new World Health Assembly resolution calling for a full and unrestricted investigation into all Covid-19 origin hypotheses with full access to all relevant records, samples, and personnel?