China and the World Health Organization have discussed the need for “stronger collaboration” on tracing the origins of Covid-19, amid tensions over the WHO’s plans to further investigate the theory that the virus could have leaked from a Wuhan lab.
This came as WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus met Chinese Premier Li Keqiang in Beijing on Saturday, where they also asserted the need to aggressively pursue vaccine equity.
Tedros, who attended the Beijing Winter Olympic Games opening ceremony on Friday, is visiting China for the first time since January 2020, after the first Covid-19 cases were reported in the central city of Wuhan.
“Pleased to meet with Premier Li Keqiang,” the WHO director general tweeted on Saturday, alongside a photo of the pair with other officials in a meeting room.
“We discussed Covid-19 and the need for an aggressive effort on vaccine equity this year to vaccinate 70 per cent of all populations,” he wrote.
And in a follow-up tweet, he said the two leaders “discussed the need for stronger collaboration on Covid-19 virus origins, rooted in science and evidence”.
Pleased to meet with 🇨🇳 Premier Li Keqiang. We discussed #COVID19 and the need for an aggressive effort on #VaccinEquity this year to vaccinate 70% of all populations. Solidarity is key to ensuring access and affordability of vaccines. pic.twitter.com/9aMgWR2j7R
— Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus (@DrTedros) February 5, 2022
A statement released by the Chinese foreign ministry after the talks said Beijing would continue to support the WHO in playing a more important role in fighting the pandemic, and maintain close and friendly cooperative relations with the global health body.
“[Tedros said] WHO adheres to scientific principles in tracing the origins of the virus and opposes politicising it,” according to the Chinese statement.
The origins of Covid-19 have been a source of tension between China and some Western countries, as well as the WHO, since the Sars-CoV-2 virus behind the disease was identified in China in late 2019.
Beijing has reacted with fury to a theory that the virus leaked from a lab in the country, calling it a “political farce” orchestrated by the US.
Last year, a WHO-backed team of scientists released a 300-page report after visiting Wuhan, capital of the central Chinese province of Hubei, where the first outbreak of the virus was reported.
The report listed four scenarios for how the virus could have been introduced to the human population, including from bats via an intermediary animal, a route that was considered the most likely.
The researchers concluded that it was extremely unlikely for the virus to have come from a lab – a theory linked to the Wuhan Institute of Virology’s study of coronaviruses, including those found in bats.
But several other nations, including the US, have called for an investigation into all hypotheses.
Tedros also told WHO member states during a meeting last March that the laboratory leak required further investigation, potentially via additional missions involving specialist experts he was ready to deploy. Those comments were slammed by an unnamed Chinese scientist on the joint international team as “extremely irresponsible,” according to state media.
WHO’s proposed second phase investigation into the origins of the pandemic has stalled after Beijing baulked at the inclusion of lab audits in the plans, accusing the health body of “disrespect for common sense” for returning to the lab leak theory.
Saturday’s meeting between Li and Tedros was held at the Diaoyutai State Guesthouse in Beijing on the sidelines of the Winter Games.
The WHO chief said he had also discussed the next steps on the Covid-19 origins study with Chinese National Health Commission director Ma Xiaowei, at a virtual meeting the day before.
This article was first published in South China Morning Post.