After more than two years since the coronavirus was originally discovered in China, and at least 6.3 million deaths have been reported globally as a result of the pandemic, the World Health Organization is urging a more thorough investigation into whether a lab accident may be to blame. This is a significant shift from the WHO’s initial assessment of the pandemic’s origins, which came after many opponents accused the WHO of dismissing or downplaying a lab-leak explanation that placed Chinese officials on the defensive.
Identifying a disease’s source in animals typically takes years. It took more than a decade for scientists to pinpoint the species of bats that were the natural reservoir for SARS, a relative of COVID-19. WHO’s expert group also noted that since lab accidents in the past have triggered some outbreaks, the highly politicized theory could not be discounted. Jean-Claude Manuguerra, a co-chair of the 27-member international advisory group, acknowledged that some scientists might be “allergic” to the idea of investigating the lab leak theory, but said they needed to be “open-minded” enough to examine it.
WHO concluded last year that it was “extremely unlikely” COVID-19 might have spilled into humans in the city of Wuhan from a lab. Many scientists suspect the coronavirus jumped into people from bats, possibly via another animal. Yet in a report released Thursday, WHO’s expert group said “key pieces of data” to explain how the pandemic began were still missing. The scientists said the group would “remain open to any and all scientific evidence that becomes available in the future to allow for comprehensive testing of all reasonable hypotheses.”
About a year ago, U.S. intelligence agencies released a report showing they had been unable to determine with any degree of certainty whether the virus had emerged naturally in animals or come from a lab. A couple months later, the American intel community acknowledged that it was unlikely to ever determine the origins of the pandemic without new information or greater cooperation from China. The new report could revive accusations that WHO initially was too accepting of Chinese government explanations early in the outbreak, which ultimately killed millions of people, sickened millions more, forced dozens of countries into lockdown and upended the world economy.
Investigations by The Associated Press found that some top WHO insiders were frustrated by China during the initial outbreak even as WHO heaped praise on Chinese President Xi Jinping. They were also upset over how China sought to clamp down on research into the origins of COVID-19. Former U.S. President Donald Trump speculated repeatedly – without evidence – that COVID-19 was started in a Chinese lab. He also accused WHO of ” colluding” with China to cover up the initial outbreak, citing the U.N. health agency’s continued public praise of the country despite China’s refusal to share crucial data.
China was quick to rail against the latest WHO report and its call for further investigation into the possibility of a lab leak origin of the pandemic. The country’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi called the lab leak theory “a lie concocted by anti-China forces for political purposes, which has nothing to do with science.” But during the same briefing, Wang said “highly suspicious laboratories such as [the U.S. military’s] Fort Detrick and the University of North Carolina” should be further examined as possible origins of the pandemic. China has long fueled conspiracy theories that the coronavirus could have come from an American lab, without offering any evidence.
WHO’s expert group said WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus sent two letters to senior Chinese government officials in February requesting information, including details about the earliest human cases of COVID-19 in the city of Wuhan. It’s unclear whether the Chinese responded. The experts said no studies were provided to WHO that assessed the possibility of COVID-19 resulting from a laboratory leak.
Jamie Metzl, who sits on an unrelated WHO advisory group, has suggested that the Group of Seven industrialized nations set up their own COVID origins probe, saying WHO lacks the political authority, expertise and independence to conduct such a critical evaluation. Metzl welcomed WHO’s call for a further investigation into the lab leak possibility but said it was insufficient.
“Tragically, the Chinese government is still refusing to share essential raw data and will not allow the necessary, full audit of the Wuhan labs,” he said. “Gaining access to this information is critical to both understanding how this pandemic began and preventing future pandemics.”
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