Commentary on Political Economy

Friday, 2 April 2021


China’s Claims of Exoneration on Covid Ring Hollow

Even the head of the World Health Organization found its report on the pandemic’s origins insufficient.

Is WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus satisfied with his own report?
Is WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus satisfied with his own report? Photographer: FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP

The World Health Organization’s report on the origins of Covid is a whitewash. Don’t take my word for it: Listen to what the WHO’s director-general had to say.

In his briefing to member states on Tuesday, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said the report’s study of the hypothesis that the Covid-19 virus initially leaked from a Chinese lab was insufficient. “I do not believe that this assessment was extensive enough,” he said. He added that future reports should include timelier and more comprehensive data sharing, a direct shot at the Chinese government. And he said he expected there would be another: “This report is a very important beginning, but it is not the end.”

Ghebreyesus’s comments are in sharp contrast to the organization’s public messaging about China’s cooperation when the pandemic began more than a year ago. Back then, the WHO praised China for its response — even as WHO officials privately expressed frustration at China’s stonewalling.

A year ago it was easy to dismiss U.S. concerns about the WHO. Frustration over the organization’s response to the pandemic and coziness with China led President Donald Trump to withdraw the U.S. from it altogether. At the time, Trump’s response was roundly and swiftly condemned as an attempt to blame China for his administration’s flat-footed and inconsistent response to the outbreak.

That may have been true. Yet it’s also clear that President Joe Biden is grappling with the same problem his predecessor had: namely, that Chinese influence within the WHO has compromised its credibility and ability to perform its core mission as the world’s early warning system for new diseases.

Trump dealt with this problem by walking away. Biden is pursuing reform. So the U.S. has rejoined the WHO while also seeking to hold it more accountable.

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This week the U.S. and 13 other allies released a statement calling for a second Covid study “free from interference and undue influence.” The current study of the virus’s origins “was significantly delayed and lacked access to complete, original data and samples.” A new study would presumably include data on human and animal transmissions as well as access to the personnel who treated those first exposed to the virus. The European Union also released a statement calling for a second study.

It’s tempting to conclude that none of these protests will matter much. Already, China has touted the study and warned against politicizing the scientific inquiry into Covid’s origins. A spokeswoman for the Chinese foreign ministry this week deflected questions about the lab leak hypothesis by raising questions again about the potential role of a U.S. military lab in the origins of Covid.

But the target of the U.S.’s WHO diplomacy is not China. It’s America’s likeminded allies. A senior State Department official told me it was part of a broader strategy to compete with China and other authoritarian states more vigorously over internal elections for leaders of international organizations. That initiative builds on a similar one started during the Trump administration.

As for China’s strategy, it is not without risks. While China has been able to undermine the independence of U.N. organizations like the WHO, its ham-handed efforts have eroded the organization’s credibility. China is free to tout the latest WHO study as exoneration. But when even the WHO director-general is dissatisfied with the report, its claims ring hollow.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

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