The terrible ravages of the coronavirus pandemic are evident in every corner of the world, so it should seem self-evident that every effort must be made to find out where and when the virus made its fateful leap from animal to human. That is why a team from the World Health Organization last week arrived in Wuhan, China, where the coronavirus was first identified.
Alas, the Chinese Communist Party has consistently demonstrated that it is far more concerned with maintaining some myth of infallibility than with helping find the source of the scourge. In doing so, it is obstructing efforts to prevent other pandemics and endangering all humanity.
Just getting into China has taken the W.H.O.’s international team of scientists more than a year, considerably lowering the odds of finding any clues about the origins of the virus. Even after permission was granted for the team to arrive in the first days of the new year, China procrastinated, prompting the director general of the W.H.O., Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, to express disappointment — a sentiment that in the politically charged lexicon of the organization amounts to a sharp rebuke.
When the team finally reached Wuhan on Thursday, China promptly planted more obstacles in its way. Two scientists remained in Singapore after they tested positive for coronavirus antibodies, and the remaining 13 were ordered to quarantine for two weeks in Wuhan, though all 15 tested negative for the virus before setting off.
When they do finally get to work, the going is not likely to get any easier. While the Chinese government publicly claimed it has cooperated with the W.H.O. team from the outset “in an open, transparent and responsible attitude,” it has not. Instead it has repeatedly thrown out red herrings suggesting that the source of the virus was not China, or that it might have had more than one source. Chinese officials have suggested at various times that the W.H.O. should also go to Spain and other countries.
The Trump administration did not help. When he was president, Donald Trump contributed to the politicization of the pandemic by regularly referring to the coronavirus as the “Chinese virus” and suggesting that it might have escaped from a Chinese laboratory.
Mr. Trump also withdrew the United States from the W.H.O. after accusing the organization of not being sufficiently critical of China. In fact, the W.H.O. is politically constrained from publicly criticizing any of its member states. Meanwhile, the Trump administration’s withdrawal from a global organization critical to the struggle against a pandemic was widely condemned as the height of folly. President Biden is expected to promptly rejoin.
It is China, however, that bears the primary responsibility for tracing the origins of the deadly pathogen first identified on its territory. Instead, China first sought to quell reports of a new disease. Then China slapped stern control over any information about it while putting out unsubstantiated claims and touting its handling of the outbreak.
An investigation by The Associated Press found that as the pandemic gained momentum, President Xi Jinping gave direct orders that any information had to be cleared by a government task force, and that anyone publishing without permission, “causing serious adverse social impact, shall be held accountable.” As a result, little has been made public, and the W.H.O. team is not likely to get the direct access to data and research that is critical for its investigation.
Without cooperation and transparency in China, there is little the W.H.O. can learn. The sprawling Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market in Wuhan, which peddled game meat and live animals and to which many of the first infections were traced, has been closed and disinfected. The samples and information gathered there are locked away at the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, and no researchers will dare speak with the international team without explicit permission — and a carefully vetted narrative — from the government.
Whether that first germ came from a bat or a pangolin or a civet or a neighboring country is likely to remain a mystery, and the search for ways to stop such transmission will remain handicapped.
The W.H.O., which is beholden to each of its 194 member states, has little leverage with China. But the rest of the world should raise its voice and demand that Beijing share everything it knows with the W.H.O. experts and the world. It should be made clear to Mr. Xi that to treat a disease that has sickened 94 million people and killed two million as a propaganda problem is dangerous and unworthy of a country with pretensions to global influence and power.