BEIJING: China on Wednesday (Mar 31) slammed "unethical" critics as it faced mounting pressure over origins of the COVID-19 pandemic, after the World Health Organization chief revived the theory that the coronavirus may have leaked from a Chinese lab.
WHO-backed experts had judged it "extremely unlikely" that the virus was leaked from a Chinese lab after a politically sensitive mission to the ground-zero city of Wuhan, but the UN body's boss stressed on Tuesday that "all hypotheses are open" and "warrant complete and further studies".
The United States also led a chorus of concern over the findings, with China riled by swirling accusations that it failed to give proper access and data to the investigators.
"This practice of politicising the search for the origins of the virus is extremely unethical," Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said at a press briefing, stressing that full access to the Wuhan lab was granted.
China was not mentioned directly by WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus or in the statement by the United States and its 13 allies, but Beijing hit back, saying it had demonstrated "its openness, transparency and responsible attitude".
The WHO team "expressed the difficulties they encountered in accessing raw data", Tedros said.
China was slammed last year by former US president Donald Trump, who had promoted the theory that the virus could have leaked from the Wuhan Institute of Virology and accused Beijing of not being transparent about the initial outbreak.
Beijing has rejected the allegations.
"QUALITY COMES FIRST"
A top Chinese medical expert on Wednesday said there was no factual basis to accusations that China did not share data with international researchers.
Liang Wannian, who was co-leader of the joint study between China and the WHO, told reporters that researchers from both sides had access to the same data throughout the investigation and that the assertions about lack of access were not accurate.
"Of course, according to Chinese law, some data cannot be taken away or photographed, but when we were analysing it together in Wuhan, everyone could see the database, the materials - it was all done together," he said.
Responding to allegations that the expert panel did not have access to complete datasets and samples, Liang said no scientist ever had perfect information.
He also rejected complaints that the publication of the report had been repeatedly delayed, noting that "every sentence, every conclusion, every piece of data" needed to be verified by both sides before it could be released.
"Throughout we always upheld the principle of 'quality comes first'," said Liang, who is the head of a committee of experts on COVID-19 set up by China's National Health Commission.
The joint study concluded that the most likely origin of COVID-19 was in animals, and probably passed through an intermediary species before it entered humans.
It also said more efforts were needed to see if COVID-19 could be traced back to wildlife farms in both China and southeast Asia.
Liang said China would continue to try to trace the origins of COVID-19, but the Chinese part of the joint research had been completed, and attention should now turn to other countries.
Tracing the origins of COVID-19 could not be achieved overnight, he said.
"There are lots of diseases that have circulated for a long time and we still haven't found their origins," he said. "It still needs a lot of time."