China cannot accept the World Health Organization’s plan for the second phase of a study into the origins of COVID-19, a senior Chinese health official said Thursday.

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Zeng Yixin, the vice minister of the National Health Commission, said he was “taken aback” by the plan and specifically, the theory that the virus might have leaked from a Chinese lab.

He dismissed the theory as a rumor that runs counter to “common sense” and science at a news conference called to address the COVID-19 origins issue.

The search for the origins of the virus has become a diplomatic issue that has worsened China’s relations with the US and many of its allies.

The US and others say that China has not been transparent about what happened in the early days of the pandemic.

China accuses critics of politicizing an issue that should be left to scientists.

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the director-general of WHO, acknowledged last week that it was premature to rule out a potential link between the pandemic and a leak from a Chinese government lab in Wuhan, the city where the disease was first detected in late 2019.

Zeng said the Wuhan lab has no virus that can directly infect humans.

He noted that a WHO-coordinated team of international experts who visited the lab earlier this year concluded that a lab leak was highly unlikely.

Zeng’s points were supported at Thursday’s news conference by Wuhan Institute of Virology Professor Yuan Zhiming.

Most experts believe the virus likely jumped from animals to humans.

The highly politicized debate centers on whether a lab leak is so unlikely that the theory should be ruled out as a possibility.

China has frequently sought to deflect accusations that the pandemic originated in Wuhan and was allowed to spread by early bureaucratic missteps and an attempted coverup.

Government spokespeople have called for an investigation into whether it might have been produced in a US military laboratory, a theory not widely held in the scientific community.

China has largely ended local transmission of the virus through lockdowns, masking requirements and the distribution of more than 1 billion doses of vaccine.

Just 12 new local cases were reported on Thursday and China’s death toll from the virus remains unchanged at 4,636.

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