WHO Chief Wants Further Study Into ‘All Hypotheses’ for Origin of COVID-19 Virus--Including Lab-Leak Theory

Patrick Goodenough | March 31, 2021 | 4:57am EDT
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World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. (Photo by Fabrice Coffrini/Pool/AFP via Getty Images)
World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. (Photo by Fabrice Coffrini/Pool/AFP via Getty Images)

(CNSNews.com) – As the World Health Organization on Tuesday released a long-awaited study into the possible origins of the coronavirus, the U.S. and others voiced skepticism and WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus – possibly reading the mood – said he disagreed with the experts’ recommendation that the theory of a laboratory accident was so unlikely that it does not merit further study.

“I do not believe that this assessment was extensive enough,” Tedros told a briefing in Geneva. “Further data and studies will be needed to reach more robust conclusions.”

“Although the team has concluded that a laboratory leak is the least likely hypothesis, this requires further investigation, potentially with additional missions involving specialist experts, which I am ready to deploy,” he said, stressing that “as far as WHO is concerned all hypotheses remain on the table.”

In their report the team – comprising 17 international and 17 Chinese experts who visited Wuhan early this year – said they examined the possibility that the virus causing COVID-19 had entered the human population as a result of an incident at a laboratory.

But it determined that this was “extremely unlikely” and did not therefore recommend “follow-up research studies” into the hypothesis.

Three other potential pathways for introduction of the virus into humans – for which the experts did recommend further investigation – were:

--That it jumped from an animal, possibly a bat, via an intermediate animal host, to humans (“likely to very likely”)

--Direct zoonotic spillover from an animal reservoir host to humans (“possible-to-likely”)

--Introduction through cold/ food chain products (“possible”)

The theory that the outbreak may have been linked to an accident at the Wuhan Institute of Virology – a specialist lab for investigating pathogens including bat coronaviruses – was raised by the Trump administration, and others.

This month, a group of scientists from the U.S. and other mostly Western countries called in an open letter for a new, independent forensic inquiry into the origin of the outbreak, including the possibility of a laboratory leak.

Former Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Dr. Robert Redfield, a virologist, said recently that he still believes a lab spillover was “the most likely etiology of this pathogen in Wuhan.”

The Biden administration, which earlier also raised concerns about the WHO-convened study, did so again on Tuesday.

“The report lacks crucial data, information, and access,” said White House press secretary Jen Psaki.  “It represents a partial and incomplete picture.”

“There are steps from here that we believe should be taken,” she told a briefing. “There’s a second stage in this process that we believe should be led by international and independent experts. They should have unfettered access to data. They should be able to ask questions of people who are on the ground at this point in time, and that’s a step the WHO could take.”

Psaki said 17 U.S. experts were reviewing the report, and “we don’t believe that, in our review to date, that it meets the moment, it meets the impact that this pandemic has had on the global community.”

Asked whether the administration believes China has cooperated sufficiently, she replied, “Well, they have not been transparent. They have not provided underlying data. That certainly doesn’t qualify as cooperation.”

Psaki also said the U.S. experts were concerned “that there isn’t additional support for one hypothesis.”

When asked whether she was referring to the lab-leak hypothesis, however, Psaki said merely, “it doesn’t provide us greater understanding of the origin of the virus.”

‘Significantly delayed and lacked access’

The U.S. also joined 13 other governments in a joint statement Tuesday expressing “shared concerns,” including that the study was “significantly delayed and lacked access to complete, original data and samples.”

It called for “a renewed commitment by WHO and all member states to access, transparency, and timeliness.”

The statement did not mention China, the member state accused both of delaying the process and of withholding data.

Since the outbreak first emerged in Wuhan in late 2019, Beijing has hotly rejected criticism of its handling of the crisis.

The Chinese foreign ministry in a statement Tuesday reiterated that during the team’s mission to Wuhan, “[t]he Chinese side offered necessary facilitation for the team's work, fully demonstrating its openness, transparency and responsible attitude.”

“To politicize this issue will only severely hinder global cooperation in study of origins, jeopardize anti-pandemic cooperation, and cost more lives,” it said. “It would run counter to the international community's aspiration for solidarity against the virus.”

The ministry also repeated its stance that studying the origins of the virus “should be conducted in multiple countries and localities.”

In more direct remarks, ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying at a briefing earlier Tuesday pointed a finger at the United States.

While China had provided access to the Wuhan lab, she said, “can the U.S. side do the same, and invite international experts and media for a visit in an open and aboveboard manner?”

“There is still a big question mark over the lab at Fort Detrick,” Hua said, alluding again to unsubstantiated theories seeking to link a temporary hold on research at the U.S. Army medical research facility in Maryland in the summer of 2019 to the outbreak.

See also:

WHO Hopes Int’l Team Probing Virus Origin Will Reach Wuhan ‘As Soon As Possible’ (Nov. 25, 2020)

US Scolds WHO Over Sluggish Approach to Investigating Origins of Coronavirus in China  (Nov. 12, 2020)

Int'l Effort to Find Virus’ Origin is Being Held Up by China (Oct. 9, 2020)

Leaked WHO Recordings Reveal Frustration at China’s Delays on Releasing Crucial Coronavirus Data (June 3, 2020)

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