China restricts research on the origin of the coronavirus

After spending weeks attempting to obscure the origin of the coronavirus, the government of China has now issued an order that all research papers on the topic must pass through China’s Education Ministry before they can be submitted to journals. The directive was supposed to remain quiet but was published online by at least two Chinese Universities.

The increased scrutiny appears to be the latest effort by the Chinese government to control the narrative on the origins of the coronavirus pandemic, which has claimed more than 100,000 lives and sickened 1.7 million people worldwide since it first broke out in the Chinese city of Wuhan in December.

Since late January, Chinese researchers have published a series of Covid-19 studies in influential international medical journals. Some findings about early coronavirus cases — such as when human-to-human transition first appeared — have raised questions over the official government account of the outbreak and sparked controversy on Chinese social media…

A Chinese researcher who spoke on condition of anonymity due to fear of retaliation said the move was a worrying development that would likely obstruct important scientific research.

“I think it is a coordinated effort from (the) Chinese government to control (the) narrative, and paint it as if the outbreak did not originate in China,” the researcher told CNN. “And I don’t think they will really tolerate any objective study to investigate the origination of this disease.”…

The directive lays out layers of approval for these papers, starting with the academic committees at universities. They are then required to be sent to the Education Ministry’s science and technology department, which then forwards the papers to a task force under the State Council for vetting. Only after the universities hear back from the task force can the papers be submitted to journals.

China obviously decided weeks ago that it was in their best interest the exact origin and timeline of the virus remain obscure. That leaves room for conspiracy theories like the one spread by their own foreign ministry spokesman, i.e. that the virus might have originated in the United States. Now the government is making sure that no future scientific efforts undercut that conspiracy theory.

The big question is whether there’s more to it than that. Remember, one research paper published in China two months ago suggested it was more likely the virus was released accidentally from a local laboratory than that it arose in the Wuhan wet market. According to that paper, locals who had visited the market said horseshoe bats were not for sale there. However, those bats were being studied at two laboratories nearby, including one that was only a few hundred meters from the market. That paper was later retracted by the author, though it seems possible he was encouraged to do so by the government. The possibility of an accidental laboratory release has even been discussed in a piece at the Washington Post, though it’s only a possibility at this point.

The one thing we can know for certain is that the government of China will lie for its own benefit. Now that the CCP has explicitly taken control of coronavirus research coming from China, we’ll have to take it with a grain of salt. As the anonymous researcher quoted above put it, “It is important for [the international community] to know there are extra steps between independent scientific research and final publication.”