By Carmen Paun

IS TEDROS RECALIBRATING ON CHINA? —The World Health Organization’s planned second phase of its investigation into the origins of the coronavirus is at a crossroads — just as the WHO’s director general gears up for reelection next May.

Beijing’s rejectionof Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus’ call for audits of labs and research institutions in Wuhan, China was no surprise. But Tedros’ approach to further probing whether the virus leaked from a lab did surprise many WHO member states in Geneva, according to two diplomats, who asked to remain anonymous to speak freely. Both see this as a potential campaign move by Tedros, who is running for a second five-year term, to align with the U.S. and the West following criticism that the WHO was soft on China when the pandemic started.

Tedros and other WHO officials counter that the global health body wasn’t soft; it lacks the power to force any country to divulge information or permit international investigators on the ground.

When China allowed an international team in Wuhan this winter to look into how the virus started, the final report, released jointly with Chinese experts, dismissed an accidental lab leak as “extremely unlikely.” That report “is often taken as an example of the WHO’s submission to China,” one of the diplomats told POLITICO’s Ashleigh Furlong. Tedros noted soon after that all hypotheses are still on the table.

A tough balancing act: Now, his tone is sharper, asking China “to be transparent, open and cooperate especially on the information, raw data that we asked for in the early days of the pandemic.”

When asked how much President Joe Biden’s demand that the U.S. intelligence community probe the virus’ origins factored into Tedros’ call, WHO spokesperson Tarik Jašarević underlined Tedros’ earlier remarks for further studies, including the lab incident hypothesis. He declined to comment on the election.

“Maybe Tedros has just done his calculations and realizes that China will not be able to block his reelection,” said the second Geneva-based diplomat.

Larry Gostin, a global health law professor at Georgetown University who knows Tedros well, sees the WHO chief’s tough talk on China as both a pivot away from his failed strategy to get China to cooperate as well as a way to shore up his own standing in the U.S. and Europe, “two crucial places where he needs the support,” he said.

WHO’s next steps aren’t clear. Top science officials from Australia, the European Union, Japan and the U.S. this week asked China to reconsider its refusal to engage in the second phase of the origin investigation. In response, a Chinese officialurged an end to “politicizing the issue of origins tracing.” And in a commentary on Wednesday, the state-owned China Global Television Network warned that American “post-trust politics” is pressuring Tedros — and destroying the WHO.

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