(CNSNews.com) – The World Health Organization must and will pursue investigations into the origins of the COVID-19 outbreak “until we have an answer,” a leading WHO scientist on Wednesday, adding that the agency continues to seek “better collaboration” from China.
Establishing how the pandemic started must be done for the sake of the millions who have lost their lives or livelihoods, infectious diseases epidemiologist Maria Van Kerkhove said in a WHO video clip.
“We owe it to them to exhaust every angle to understand how this pandemic began, so that we can be better prepared for the future.”
Van Kerkhove, the agency’s technical lead on the pandemic, summarized the main hypotheses under investigation – a natural spillover from infected animal to human, perhaps in a market or farm environment; or a possible “breach in biosafety or biosafety at any labs that were working with similar viruses to SARS-CoV2” – the virus that causes COVID-19.
Right now, she said, “we are not able to exclude any of those hypotheses until we have the data to do so,” and since many studies have either not been carried out or not completed, “we’re not able to make a firm conclusion at the present time.”
“We continue to look at all available evidence that is provided to us that we have access to. We continue to work with scientists around the world to advance studies that have been recommended,” Van Kerkhove said. “We continue to request from China better collaboration.”
“This work will continue until we can rule out any of the hypotheses and until we have an answer.”
Van Kerkhove said that as time passes it was becoming increasingly difficult to ascertain the origin of the outbreak.
“But as an organization, as public health professionals, as scientists, we must pursue this until all avenues are exhausted.”
The simmering question of the origin of COVID-19 returned to the headlines over the past fortnight after revelations that the FBI and the Department of Energy both assess that a leak from a Wuhan lab was the most likely source of the pandemic. Other U.S. intelligence agencies lean towards the natural spillover theory or remain undecided.
Last Friday the U.S. House – in a 419-0 vote – passed a bill requiring the Director of National Intelligence to declassify intelligence relating to a possible COVID-19 lab-leak in Wuhan.
The legislation, directing the DNI to “declassify all information relating to potential links between the Wuhan Institute of Virology and the origin of COVID-19,” passed the U.S. Senate by unanimous consent on March 1. It was introduced by Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), after similar legislation passed the Senate in May 2021, but was not brought up in the House.
Almost a week after House passage, the White House has not indicated when or whether President Biden will sign it.
The bill says the information to be declassified must include “activities performed by the Wuhan Institute of Virology with or on behalf of the People’s Liberation Army,” as well as “coronavirus research or other related activities performed at the Wuhan Institute of Virology prior to the outbreak of COVID-19.”
The DNI was also directed to declassify information relating to WIV researchers who were reported to have fallen ill in the fall of 2019.
All the requested information should be provided to Congress in an unclassified report, with only such redactions made as the DNI determines are necessary, “to protect sources and methods.”
‘Became sick in autumn 2019’
WIV is China’s specialist lab studying coronaviruses in bats. Former Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Dr. Robert Redfield in congressional testimony last week reiterated his opinion that “gain of function” research at the lab likely give rise to the virus.
In gain-of-function research, scientists intentionally increase the transmissibility and/or lethality of an organism, to help improve pandemic preparedness and develop countermeasures. Redfield called for a moratorium on the inherently risky work.
In the 2021 version of his bill, Hawley referred to a January 2021 State Department fact sheet, which raised the issue of alleged illness at the WIV in the fall of 2019.
“The U.S. government has reason to believe that several researchers inside the WIV became sick in autumn 2019, before the first identified case of the outbreak, with symptoms consistent with both COVID-19 and common seasonal illnesses,” said the fact sheet, released just days before the end of the Trump administration.
In a statement issued in conjunction with that fact sheet, outgoing Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the information was being made public to assist a WHO-convened expert team that had just arrived in China on a long-delayed mission aimed at probing the origins of the outbreak in Wuhan.
The visit by the Chinese and international team ended with a report concluding that the lab-leak hypothesis was “extremely unlikely” and not worthy of further study.
(The only U.S.-based member of the 15-person team was British disease specialist Peter Daszak, president of the non-profit EcoHealth Alliance, whose U.S. taxpayer-funded work included collaborating with the WIV on identifying the bat origins of SARS.)
Although the WHO-convened team recommended no further study into the lab-leak hypothesis, the agency’s director-general, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, overruled it, arguing that “all hypotheses [on the origins of the virus] remain on the table.”
Beijing continues to deny the lab-leak possibility, calling it an allegation trumped up by the U.S. to tarnish China.
“For some time now, the US has been politicizing, weaponizing and instrumentalizing COVID origins-tracing,” foreign ministry spokeswoman Mao Ning said in response to the legislation calling for declassification of intelligence relating to a lab-leak scenario.
“It has let a matter of science be dominated by lawmakers and the intelligence community and spread myths such as the ‘lab leak’ theory without any evidence to discredit and attack China,” she said.