A British scientist who took part in a World Health Organisation mission to investigate whether Covid leaked from a Wuhan laboratory has suggested that China has been "misunderstood" over its refusal to address growing suspicions about the origins of the disease.
Dr Peter Daszak said he sympathised with the Chinese government for refusing to give "oxygen" to "conspiracy theories", and cast doubt on US intelligence suggesting that three workers at the Wuhan lab fell ill shortly before the first recorded case of Covid-19.
It comes after US President Joe Biden ordered his officials to redouble their efforts to investigate the origins of the pandemic, including any possibility that the search might lead to a Chinese laboratory.
British agents are understood to be assisting the investigation, and now believe it is "feasible" that the Wuhan lab may have been the source of the virus, according to reports.
Daszak, a leading zoologist, was a key member of the WHO team that decided it was "extremely unlikely" that Covid-19 had escaped from the Wuhan Institute of Virology after a three-week visit to China in January.
Critics suggested that the visit had been heavily stage-managed by Beijing after the scientists visited a propaganda museum detailing Wuhan's fight against Covid-19 on their second day.
Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the WHO's director-general, later conceded that the team's report was not "extensive enough" after 14 countries, including the US and UK, made a joint statement to express concerns over its conclusions.
Daszak has also been accused of an apparent conflict of interest after it emerged that his non-profit organisation EcoHealth Alliance had been funding the Wuhan Institute of Virology for years, and that he had collaborated with the institute's Shi Zhengli to investigate and catalogue bat coronaviruses across China.
Daszak told a podcast this week that he believed the Chinese had fallen victim to "conspiracy theories", and he dismissed new intelligence reports as "political, not scientific".
He added that he sympathised with the Chinese government, which has been repeatedly accused of refusing to co-operate with international investigators.
Speaking about his visit to Wuhan, Daszak said: "One thing that I learned from the lab director I thought was very interesting. We were asking him all these questions about - they call them rumours over there, we call them conspiracy theories. And he said, basically, we've not responded to those rumours, because if you do that, you give them oxygen.
"So I think people misunderstand the Chinese, the Chinese government. Here's a Chinese government worker, senior level, running a lab, not speaking up when they're accused. The reason is, he stated quite clearly, they don't want to give oxygen to these conspiracies. They're all unfounded."
Daszak also cast doubt on US intelligence suggesting that three workers at the Wuhan Institute had fallen ill shortly before the first patient with Covid-like symptoms was recorded in the city on December 8, 2019.
"There's no evidence of hospitalisation, and it's unclear what they were sick with," he said. "It's not something that you could really reasonably launch a major audit of."
Daszak gained his worldwide reputation after turning Gerald Durrell's conservation charity, previously known as The Wildlife Trust, into an organisation hunting down new viruses around the world.
Earlier this year it emerged that Daszak's EcoHealth Alliance had funnelled money into research into coronaviruses at the Wuhan Institute of Virology until funding was blocked by US authorities on safety grounds.
'Conflicts of interest'
The National Institutes of Health said its US$3.7 million (NZ$5.1m) grant to EcoHealth Alliance would be restored only if outside experts could establish whether staff had the Covid-19 virus "in their possession" prior to December 2019.
"Peter Daszak has conflicts of interest that unequivocally disqualify him from being part of an investigation of the origins of the Covid-19 pandemic," Richard Ebright, a bio-security expert and professor of chemical biology at Rutgers University in New Jersey, said at the time.
Daszak has previously rejected the suggestion that his connections to the lab would compromise his impartiality.
"My relationship with China, my work here, my connections to the Wuhan Institute of Virology and Shi Zhengli are very well known. And they're really well known because I've spent 20 years or 15 years publishing the data. I think that's a pretty worthwhile thing that we've been doing," he said in March.
On Sunday a government minister said the World Health Organisation must be allowed to fully investigate the origins of the Covid pandemic after the Sunday Times reported that British agents now believe it is "feasible" that the crisis began with a coronavirus leak from the Wuhan research laboratory.
The newspaper reported that the development, which Beijing has angrily denied, has prompted US diplomatic sources to share their concerns that "we are one wet market or bio lab away from the next spillover".
Nadim Zahawi, the UK's vaccine minister, said: "I think the WHO at every step of the way has tried to share as much data with the world as it is able to verify.
"This is a very difficult situation, as we've seen around the world, not just in the WHO but in our own country, with our own evidence gathering, and of course advice, and in other countries, every country, whether it's Singapore or Australia or New Zealand or elsewhere.
"We have all had to collect evidence and then act upon it and I think it is only right that the WHO is allowed to conduct its investigation unencumbered to be able for all of us to understand and be able to deal with future pandemics."