BEIJING: China has gone on the offensive ahead of the release of a US intelligence report on the origins of the coronavirus, bringing out a senior official to accuse the US of politicising the issue by seeking to blame China.
Fu Cong, a Foreign Ministry director general, said at a briefing for foreign journalists on Wednesday that "scapegoating China cannot whitewash the US."
"If they want to baselessly accuse China, they better be prepared to accept the counterattack from China," he said.
China, the US and the World Health Organisation are entangled in a feud that centres on whether the virus that causes COVID-19 could have leaked from a lab in the city of Wuhan, where the disease was first detected in late 2019.
A joint WHO-China report published in late March concluded that a lab leak was "extremely unlikely", and China wants the investigation to move on to other possibilities.
The most likely scenario, the report said, is that the virus jumped from bats to another animal that then infected humans.
But the findings are not conclusive, and WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said "all hypotheses are on the table and warrant complete and further studies".
He added in July that there had been a "premature push" to rule out the lab leak theory.
In May, President Joe Biden ordered a 90-day review by intelligence agencies of both theories.
White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said Biden received the report and a classified briefing about it on Tuesday, and that an unclassified summary is being prepared "expeditiously" for public release.
The feud over whether to keep pursuing the lab leak theory has delayed the next phase of research, and the scientists who made up the WHO team for the joint report warned Wednesday that the window of opportunity for solving the mystery is "closing fast".
China has responded to continuing speculation about a leak from the Wuhan Institute of Virology by suggesting the virus could have escaped from Fort Detrick, a US military lab in Maryland.
Fu, who heads the Foreign Ministry's Arms Control Department, denied that China is engaging in a disinformation campaign.
He said if other parties insist on pursuing the lab leak theory, then the WHO team of researchers should visit Fort Detrick.
He portrayed it as a fairness issue, since the WHO has been to the Wuhan institute twice.
"If Dr Tedros believes that we should not rule out the hypothesis of a lab leak, well, he knows where to go," Fu said.
"He needs to go to the US labs."
China notes that the Fort Detrick's infectious disease institute has studied coronaviruses and that it was closed for several months in 2019-20 for safety violations.
The international scientists dispatched to China by the World Health Organisation to find out where the coronavirus came from said Wednesday the search has stalled and warned that the window of opportunity for solving the mystery is "closing fast."
Meanwhile, a U.S. intelligence review ordered up by President Joe Biden proved inconclusive about the virus's origin, including whether it jumped from an animal to a human or escaped from a Chinese lab, The Washington Post reported Wednesday.
In a commentary published in the journal Nature, the WHO-recruited experts said the origins investigation is at "a critical juncture" requiring urgent collaboration but has instead come to a standstill.
They noted among other things that Chinese officials are still reluctant to share some raw data, citing concerns over patient confidentiality.
Earlier this year, WHO sent a team of experts to Wuhan, where the first human COVID-19 cases were detected in December 2019, to probe what might have triggered the pandemic now blamed for nearly 4.5 million deaths worldwide, with more than 10,000 people a day succumbing despite more than 5 billion doses of vaccine administered.
In their analysis, published in March, the WHO team concluded the virus probably jumped to humans from animals, and they described the possibility of a laboratory leak as "extremely unlikely."
But the WHO experts said their report was intended only as a first step and added, "The window of opportunity for conducting this crucial inquiry is closing fast: any delay will render some of the studies biologically impossible."
For example, they said, "Antibodies wane, so collecting further samples and testing people who might have been exposed before December 2019 will yield diminishing returns."
"China has always supported and will continue to participate in the science-based origin tracing efforts," Fu said.
He accused the U.S. of "hyping the lab leak theory" and trying to shift the blame onto China, and implied the coronavirus might be linked to high-level American research labs, suggesting the United States invite WHO to investigate some of its installations.
Marion Koopmans and her WHO-recruited colleagues listed a number of priorities for further research, including conducting wider antibody surveys that might identify places where COVID-19 was spreading undetected, both in China and beyond, testing wild bats and farm-raised animals as potential reservoirs of the virus, and investigating any credible new leads.
Some other scientists fear the best opportunities to collect samples might have been missed during the first few weeks after some of the earliest human cases appeared linked to a Wuhan seafood market.
Chinese researchers collected hundreds of environmental samples immediately after the coronavirus was found, but it is unclear how many people or animals were tested.
"Once you have wildlife traders shifting over to other kinds of employment because they're worried about whether they'll be able to do this anymore, that window starts to close," said Maciej Boni, a Pennsylvania State University biology professor who has studied virus origins and was not part of the WHO team.
Still, Boni said scientists might be able to pinpoint COVID-19's animal source by hunting for closely related viruses in species like raccoon dogs, mink or ground squirrels.
But he said it could take about five years to do the kind of extensive studies necessary.
The search for COVID-19's origins has become a bitter source of dispute between the U.S. and China, with increasing numbers of American experts calling for the two Wuhan laboratories close to the seafood market to be investigated, something China has flatly rejected and branded "scapegoating."
Biden in May ordered a 90-day review by U.S. intelligence agencies of both the animal-to-human hypothesis and the lab-leak theory.
In July, even WHO's Director-General Tedros Adhanom Gheybreyesus said it was premature to have rejected the lab theory, adding that research accidents are common.