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German Chancellor Angela Merkel says the more transparent China is about the origin of the virus, the better it is for everyone. Photo: EPA-EFE

Germany pushes China for answers to coronavirus origin

  • China says Covid-19 is a scientific issue and should be investigated by scientists and medical experts
  • While pushing for more transparency, Germany and France have steered clear of US suspicions about Wuhan virology lab
German Chancellor Angela Merkel has pressed China for transparency about the origin of the coronavirus, following similar concerns raised by the French president in a show of disapproval over Beijing’s handling of the pandemic.

Merkel joins a growing chorus demanding that China release more information about the virus, underlining the level of unease for the European leader who is generally seen as less critical of the Chinese government in public.

Despite mounting international pressure, Chinese government advisers have indicated that Beijing is unlikely to bow to the United States to allow a visit to a Wuhan virology lab, the focal point of US conspiracy theories that the virus was engineered.

Both France and Germany have distanced themselves from US claims suggesting a possible link between the virus and the lab – claims also rejected by China.

But, Merkel said on Monday that she believed that “the more transparent China is about the origin of the virus, the better it is for everyone in the world in order to learn from it”.

She was asked about similar remarks made by German Development Minister Gerd Mueller, who said last week that the Chinese government “had to show complete openness in this world crisis – especially with regard to the origin of the virus”.

In response to US allegations that Beijing hid the origin of the coronavirus, Mueller said China “should have entered into international exchanges about the spread of the virus in Wuhan faster”.

The issue also came amid a row between the Chinese embassy in Berlin and Germany’s biggest newspaper by circulation, Bild, prompting the editor-in-chief to publish a video in English questioning the Chinese political system, a rare move for the newspaper which traditionally has a more domestic focus.

Last week, French President Emmanuel Macron also weighed in on China’s lack of transparency, in the context of differences between Western democracy and Chinese authoritarianism.

On Tuesday, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said China had strengthened international cooperation of epidemic prevention in an open, transparent and responsible manner.

“China and Germany have maintained close communication and exchanges during this shared experience of epidemic prevention and control. We have cooperated well to jointly fight the epidemic,” Geng said.

“As for the origin of the virus, we have repeatedly stressed that this is a scientific issue and should be studied by scientists and medical experts.”

The Chinese government has insisted there were no cover-ups or omissions in its reporting, and two government advisers have said the Chinese narrative is not likely to change much, despite pressure from abroad.

Shi Yinhong, an international relations expert with Renmin University of China, said Beijing was undecided over its next step.

“My guess is that it could admit that it has committed minor mistakes in the beginning of the crisis, but still stick to the bottom line,” Shi said, referring to China’s denial that the virus was leaked from the laboratory in Wuhan.

At best, Beijing would make minor changes to its account of the outbreak, Shi said.

“For now, the official position has been that the Chinese government has done nothing wrong throughout the outbreak but clearly Western politicians are not convinced,” he said, noting that pressure by the US government had also been growing.

Ding Chun, a professor of European Studies at Fudan University, said China would continue to stress that the origin of the virus was a matter of science and should not be politicised.

“The World Health Organisation has already done its investigation [in Wuhan] and there were also American experts involved,” he said. “We should stop politicising the matter.”

China has actively dismissed suggestions that the Wuhan lab manufactured the virus.

Yuan Zhiming, the Wuhan Institute of Virology’s Communist Party chief, told state-run media that there was “absolutely no way that the virus originated from our institute”.

Yuan rejected theories that the yet-to-be identified “patient zero” for Covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, had contact with the institute, saying none of its employees, retirees or student researchers were known to be infected.

US Republican Senator Tom Cotton and Washington Post journalists, he added, were among those “deliberately leading people” to mistrust the facility and its top-level-security pathogen lab.

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Germany pushes china over origins of virus