WUHAN, China – Zhang Hai warns World Health Organization scientists investigating the origin of coronavirus in Wuhan, China: don’t be fooled.
“If you just work with government officials behind the doors, go to places and read documents arranged by them, you are easily fooled,” said Zhang, who said his father died in February 2020 after being hospitalized for routine fracture surgery had been admitted and contracted the virus.
When the WHO’s team of scientists began its field research on the origins of Covid-19 in Wuhan on Friday, Zhang was one of a group of survivors of Chinese families who were looking for an audience with international experts.
They accuse authorities of hiding information about the virus at the beginning of the outbreak, which has since more than killed 2 million people global and want answers.
“If WHO does their thing, the government has a good excuse to turn down the family members of dead patients who are trying to hold the government accountable,” said Zhang, who was born in Wuhan and now lives in Shenzhen.
Zhang said he was monitored and harassed by Chinese authorities for filing public complaints, including regular police visits to his home. Before visiting the WHO scientists, he said that a WeChat social messaging group he belongs to with around 100 survivors has been closed.
NBC News was unable to independently verify his allegations, and Chinese officials were not available to comment on his allegations. WHO has not yet responded to NBC News’ request for comment on a possible meeting with a group of bereaved relatives.
WHO spokeswoman Margaret Harris announced in Geneva on Friday that the team “will go out, but will take the bus everywhere to avoid contact with the community”.
“You will only have contact with different people organized as part of the study,” she added.
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While WHO officials say they are simply in China to follow the science, Zhang’s comments are part of a highly politicized environment that surrounds the journey and origins of Covid-19.
The Wuhan mission was already plagued by delays, access concerns and disputes between China and the United States, which, under then-President Donald Trump, accused Beijing of hiding the scale of the initial outbreak.
Beijing has since advocated the idea that the virus existed overseas before it was discovered in Wuhan. State media cite the alleged presence of the virus on imported frozen packaging.
A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said Friday that WHO and Chinese experts are working together to trace the origin of the virus, but stressed that the mission is not a probe.
“I would like to emphasize that the exchange and cooperation between WHO experts and Chinese tracing experts are part of a global study, not an investigation,” Zhao said at a press conference in Beijing.
A member of the WHO team that visited Wuhan, zoologist Peter Daszak, told NBC News, “We are here to do science.”
“We do know, however, that there is geopolitics on every side. It’s very intense right now … but science will come out in the end, it pushes for the truth.”
Daszak said he and others were analyzing the data and the virus path, but were aware of the “sensitive” work environment and noted that “every side has something to lose in this investigation”.
“I think if science is allowed to speak it will help heal this wound and keep it going,” he added.
Janis Mackey Frayer reported from Wuhan, China; Adela Suliman reported from London.
Reuters contributed to this report.