As a team from the World Health Organization (WHO) prepares to visit China to investigate the origins of Covid-19, Beijing has stepped up efforts not only to prevent new outbreaks, but also shape the narrative about when and where the pandemic began.
But amid simmering geopolitical tensions, experts said the investigators were unlikely to be allowed to scrutinise some of the more sensitive aspects of the outbreak, with Beijing desperate to avoid blame for a virus that has killed more than 1.8 million people worldwide.
“They will have to be politically savvy and draw conclusions that are acceptable to all the major parties,” he added.
On Saturday, senior diplomat Wang Yi praised the anti-pandemic efforts, saying China not only curbed domestic infections, but also “took the lead in building a global anti-epidemic defence” by providing aid to more than 150 countries.
China has been accused of a cover-up that delayed its initial response, allowing the virus to spread further.
The topic remains sensitive, with only a handful of studies into the origins of Covid-19 made available to the public.
Last week, a study by China’s Center for Disease Control showed that blood samples from 4.43 per cent of Wuhan’s population contained Covid-19 antibodies, indicating that the city’s infection rates were far higher than originally acknowledged.
But scientists said China must also share any findings suggesting Covid-19 was circulating domestically long before it was officially identified in December 2019.
An Italian study showed that Covid-19 might have been in Europe several months before China’s first official case. Chinese state media used the paper to support theories that Covid-19 originated overseas and entered China via contaminated frozen food or foreign athletes competing at the World Military Games in Wuhan in October 2019.
Raina MacIntyre, head of the Kirby Institute’s Biosecurity Research Program in Australia, said the investigation needed to draw “a comprehensive global picture of the epidemiological clues”, including any evidence Covid-19 was present outside of China before December 2019.
However, political issues mean they are unlikely to be given much leeway to investigate one hypothesis, that the outbreak was caused by a leak at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, said MacIntyre.
“I think it is unlikely all viruses in the lab at the time will be made available to the team,” she said. “So I do not think we will ever know the truth.”