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China Clamps Down on Search for Virus Origins

Orders came straight from the top, AP investigation finds
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Dec 31, 2020 2:10 PM CST

(Newser) – 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 1.7 million people worldwide. Yet for scientists and journalists, it has become a black hole of no information because of political sensitivity and secrecy, the AP reports. A bat research team visiting recently managed to take samples but had them confiscated, two people familiar with the matter said. Specialists in coronaviruses have been ordered not to speak to the press. And a team of AP journalists was tailed by plainclothes police in multiple cars who blocked access to roads and sites in late November.

  • More than a year since the first known person was infected with the coronavirus, an AP investigation shows the Chinese government 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.

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  • The government is handing out hundreds of thousands of dollars in grants to scientists researching the virus’ origins in southern China and affiliated with the military. But 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 President Xi Jinping, according to internal documents obtained by the AP. As a result, very 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 China’s cabinet and the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention. It reveals a pattern of government secrecy and top-down control that has been evident throughout the pandemic. This culture has delayed warnings about the pandemic, blocked the sharing of information with the World Health Organization and hampered early testing. Scientists familiar with China’s public health system say the same practices apply to sensitive research.
  • Some Chinese scientists, however, say little has been shared simply because nothing of significance has been discovered. "We’ve been looking, but we haven’t found it," says Zhang Yongzhen, a renowned Chinese virologist.

(A World Health Organization team will be allowed to visit Wuhan next month.)

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