China is desperate to control the narrative of Covid-19’s origin – whatever the cost

International experts from the World Health Organisation trying to investigate the origins of the coronavirus in China, a year after it first emerged in the central city of Wuhan, continue to run into roadblocks. 

The delay for the WHO mission – already plagued by politics and posturing – adds to persistent worries that China will whitewash and frustrate the investigation. Indeed, a two-person WHO team on a three-week mission last August, aimed at laying out plans for further study, sat through a 14-day quarantine upon arrival and never visited Wuhan. 

This comes as Beijing engages in a relentless propaganda campaign to distract from its cover-up and rewrite the narrative – all aimed at claiming the coronavirus originated outside China. Officials have seeded a number of conspiracy theories, including blaming the US military for infecting China. The most recent theory flouted is to label imported frozen seafood as the culprit.

Foreign minister Wang Yi has gone so far as to claim the virus emerged in many countries, and that China was simply the first to spot it. “We raced to report the epidemic first,” he told state media. 

Mr Wang’s comments are a far cry from the experiences of doctors, including the late Li Wenliang and Ai Fen, both of whom were reprimanded by Chinese authorities after discovering coronavirus infections in December 2018 and seeking to warn colleagues. 

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director General of the World Health Organisation said visa issues were holding up the China mission

Foreign journalists trying to report on the impact and origins of coronavirus, including from the Telegraph, have been harassed since the outbreak began at cemeteries in Wuhan and at caves deep in China where scientists had studied similar coronaviruses. 

Beijing is so determined to stamp out dissent against its official story of what happened that authorities have disappeared citizen journalists who sought to report on the outbreak. A few weeks ago, one of them, Zhang Zhan, resurfaced in court where she was sentenced to four years in prison in a trial that the UK criticised as “secret.” 

Authorities have even instructed some Wuhan residents not to speak to foreign journalists, reminding them that only praise for the government response is acceptable.

President Xi Jinping delivers a New Year's address

All this paranoia helps whip conspiracy theorists in the West into a frenzy. What is China trying to hide? Did the virus escape from a lab? Was it even engineered there?

These theories have been roundly dismissed by the global scientific community. But they are unlikely to go away until China is more transparent. The WHO mission is a good place to start.

But a change of tact is, sadly, unlikely.

China is more focused on crowing victory over the virus and to tout its vaccine diplomacy – state-owned Sinopharm said it’s on track to produce one billion doses this year.

Its priority lies in rehabilitating its image on the world stage, whatever the cost.

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