China clamps down in hidden hunt for coronavirus origins
Deep in the lush mountain valleys of southern China lies the entrance to a mine shaft that once harbored bats with the closest known relative of the COVID-19 virus.
The area is of intense scientific interest because it may hold clues to the origins of the coronavirus that has killed more than 1.8 million people worldwide. Yet, for scientists and journalists, it has become a black hole of no information because of political sensitivity and secrecy.
A bat research team visiting recently managed to take samples but they were confiscated, two people familiar with the matter said. Specialists in coronaviruses have been ordered not to speak to reporters. A team of Associated Press (AP) journalists was tailed by plainclothes police in multiple cars who blocked access to roads and sites in late November 2020.
More than a year since the first known person was infected with the coronavirus, an AP investigation shows the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is strictly controlling all research into its origins, clamping down on some while actively promoting fringe theories that it could have come from outside China.
The government is handing out hundreds of thousands of dollars in grants to military-affiliated scientists researching the virus’s origins in southern China, the AP has found. It is monitoring their findings and mandating that the publication of any data or research must be approved by a new task force managed by China’s cabinet, under direct orders from CCP General Secretary Xi Jinping, according to internal documents obtained by the AP. A rare leak from within the government, the dozens of pages of unpublished documents confirm what many have long suspected: The clampdown comes from the top.
As a result, little has been made public. Authorities are severely limiting information and impeding cooperation with international scientists.
“What did they find?” asked Gregory Gray, a Duke University epidemiologist who oversees a lab in China studying the transmission of infectious diseases from animals to people. “Maybe their data were not conclusive, or maybe they suppressed the data for some political reason. I don’t know … I wish I did.”
The AP investigation was based on dozens of interviews with Chinese and foreign scientists and officials, along with public notices, leaked emails, internal data and the documents from the CCP’s cabinet and the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention (China CDC). It reveals a pattern of government secrecy and top-down control that has been evident throughout the pandemic.
As the AP previously documented, this culture has delayed warnings about the pandemic, blocked the sharing of information with the World Health Organization (WHO) and hampered early testing. Scientists familiar with China’s public health system say the same practices apply to sensitive research.
“They only select people they can trust, those that they can control,” said a public health expert who works regularly with the China CDC, declining to be identified for fear of retribution. “Military teams and others are working hard on this, but whether it gets published all depends on the outcome.”
The pandemic has crippled the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC’s) reputation on the global stage, and China’s leaders are wary of any findings that could suggest they were negligent in its spread. The Chinese Ministry of Science and Technology and the National Health Commission, which are managing research into the coronavirus’s origins, did not respond to requests for comment.
“The novel coronavirus has been discovered in many parts of the world,” China’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement. “Scientists should carry out international scientific research and cooperation on a global scale.”
Some Chinese scientists say that little has been shared simply because nothing of significance has been discovered.
“We’ve been looking, but we haven’t found it,” said Zhang Yongzhen, a Chinese virologist.
Research into COVID-19’s origins is critical to the prevention of future pandemics. Although a WHO team planned to visit China in early January 2021 to investigate what started the pandemic, its members and agenda had to be approved by the PRC.
Some public health experts warn that China’s refusal to grant further access to international scientists has jeopardized the global collaboration that pinpointed the source of the SARS outbreak nearly two decades ago.
“There’s so much speculation around the origins of this virus,” said Jonna Mazet, a founding executive director of the One Health Institute at the University of California, Davis. “We need to step back … and let scientists get the real answer without the finger-pointing.”
Image Credit: ISTOCK