HONG KONG (Reuters) - An adviser to the Hong Kong government has withdrawn a column he co-authored in which he said it was acceptable to refer to the coronavirus as the “Wuhan coronavirus” and there was no evidence to support allegations the disease came from the United States.
Yuen Kwok-yung, a leading microbiologist and infectious-diseases expert at the University of Hong Kong, also described the new coronavirus as a product of China’s “poor quality culture” of eating wild animals.
The article came as a war of words escalated between the United States and China over the outbreak, which is believed to have originated in China late last year, with U.S. President Donald Trump dismissing criticism that his labeling it the “Chinese virus” was racist.
Yuen’s decision late on Wednesday to retract the article from the website of the newspaper Ming Pao sparked a flurry of debate on social media, where some people said it raised questions over freedom of speech in academia in the Chinese-ruled city.
Retracting the commentary - though it was still widely available on the internet on Thursday - Yuen apologised and said he did not want to become embroiled in politics.
“The expression in the article was inappropriate, wordings were even inaccurate, it’s not the original intention. (We) hope the outside world does not involve us in politics and saves us a space for research,” Ming Pao, quoted the microbiologists as saying in a retraction notice.
In an interview with Chinese-language media Zhi News, also on Wednesday, Yuen said: “Maybe no one loves the country more than I do.”
Yuen is a member of a team advising Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam on the coronavirus epidemic. The co-author of the article was David Christopher Lung, a microbiologist at the University of Hong Kong.
Yuen did not respond to an email request for comment. Reuters could not reach Lung for comment.
In the column published on Wednesday, the experts urged the Chinese and Hong Kong governments to learn from the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) outbreak in 2003 and close all wildlife markets, as well as improve hygiene in wet markets.
They urged people to analyze information rationally and stop spreading rumors that the virus originated in the United States.
China has suggested the U.S. military might have brought the virus to the city of Wuhan, where the outbreak is believed to have originated. A U.S. State Department official responded saying China seeking to deflect criticism of its role in “starting a global pandemic”.
“Excessively killing and eating wildlife, treating animals inhumanely, disrespecting lives ... the ugly habits of Chinese people are the root of origin of the virus. With these attitudes, after another decade, SARS 3.0 will surely reappear,” they wrote.
China’s legislature said last month it would immediately ban the trade and consumption of wild animals for food, after some of the earliest infections were found in people who had exposure to a wildlife market in Wuhan, where bats, snakes, civets and other animals were sold illegally.
The coronavirus has infected more than 80,000 people in China, killing 3,245 as of Wednesday. Hong Kong has 192 confirmed cases.
Globally, more than 204,000 people have been infected and more than 8,700 have died.
Additional reporting by Donny Kwok; Editing by Anne Marie Roantree and Robert Birsel