According to state media on Thursday, a top Chinese epidemiologist stated the United States should be prioritised in the next round of inquiries into the origin of COVID-19 after a research revealed the illness might have been spreading there as early as December 2019.
The study, published this week by the U.S. National Institutes for Health (NIH), showed that at least seven people in five U.S. states were infected with SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, weeks before the United States reported its first official cases.
A China-World Health Organization (WHO) joint study published in March said COVID-19 most likely originated in the country’s wildlife trade, with the virus passing into humans from bats via an intermediary species.
However, Beijing has propagated the notion that COVID-19 reached China via tainted frozen food, while a number of foreign lawmakers have also called for deeper research into the likelihood that it spilt from a laboratory.
Zeng Guang, head epidemiologist at the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, told the state-owned Global Times that focus should move to the United States, which was sluggish to test people in the early stages of the outbreak and also has numerous biological facilities.
“All bio-weapons related subjects that the country has should be subject to scrutiny,” he was quoted as saying.
Commenting on the U.S. study on Wednesday, foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said it was now “obvious” the COVID-19 outbreak had “multiple origins” and that other countries should co-operate with the WHO.
The origin of the pandemic has become a source of political tension between China and the United States, with much of the recent focus on the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV), located in Wuhan where the outbreak was first identified in late 2019.
China has been criticised for its lack of transparency when it comes to disclosing data about early cases as well as the viruses studied at WIV.
A report by a U.S. government national laboratory concluded that it was plausible that the virus had leaked from the Wuhan lab, the Wall Street Journal reported earlier this month.
A previous study has raised the possibility that SARS-CoV-2 could have been circulating in Europe as early as September, but experts said this didn’t necessarily mean it did not originate in China, where many SARS-like coronaviruses have been found in the wild.
Reporting by David Stanway and Samuel Shen