WHO denies it ‘abandoned’ investigation into origins of COVID because of China’s stone wall

Laboratory technicians work to test human samples for COVID-19 at a laboratory in Shenyang, China, February 12, 2020. (AFP via Getty Images)

WASHINGTON – The World Health Organization denies a report made by a leading scientific journal that had “quietly placed” an investigation into the origins of the coronavirus.

But that denial itself has only highlighted the challenges for such an investigation, especially given China’s continued reluctance to allow access to sites that might hold clues to how the pandemic began.

The controversy begins with a report published on Tuesday from the prestigious scientific journal Nature: “WHO abandons plans for crucial second phase of investigation into the origins of COVID.” Apparently, there would be no follow-up to the WHO spring 2021 report on how the pandemic startedthe article said, due to an inability to “conduct crucial studies in China”.

The report was supposed to be the first phase of the investigation. But as a WHO infectious disease expert Maria Van Kerkhovewho leads the global agency’s pandemic response, told Nature, “There is no second phase.”

WHO officials, however, quickly protested that the investigation had not been cancelled. The report was “completely misleading,” WHO spokesman Tarik Jašarević told Yahoo News in an email on Wednesday.

The row highlights how little remains known about the origin of SARS-CoV-2 – a world-changing event that remains a mystery three years after the fact. Because so much time has passed, the much-discussed question of whether the pathogen originated in a market stall or on a laboratory table may forever remain unsolved, as especially as most of the world (including the China) is trying to move beyond the pandemic.

A security guard stands outside the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market, where the coronavirus was detected, in Wuhan, China, on January 24, 2020.

A security guard stands outside the Huanan Fish Wholesale Market, where the coronavirus was detected, in Wuhan, China, January 24, 2020. (Hector Retamal/AFP via Getty Images)

Answers have been difficult to find in large part because Chinese authorities have steadfastly resisted giving Western researchers the access they have requested since early 2020.

In his comments to Nature, Van Kerkhove acknowledged a “deep frustration” over how difficult it had been to restore trust with his Chinese counterparts, who have become skeptical of outside investigators over the course of the three-year battle against COVID-19.

In the United States, a new Republican majority in the House of Representatives has promised to question Dr. Anthony Fauci, the recently retired immunologist, and other senior officials about what they may have known – and what they missed – about to a risky search that Some believe could have led to the beginning of the pandemic.

Last month, the inspector general of the Department of Health and Human Services he blamed the National Institutes of Health for not providing sufficient oversight of US funds supporting research at the Wuhan Institute of Virology via an intermediary organization, the EcoHealth Alliance based in New York.

The head of the EcoHealth Alliance, Peter Daszak, was among the strongest critics of the laboratory leak hypothesis, although he concealed his links to the Chinese researchers. It is controversial served in the WHO team that traveled to Wuhan in early 2021 during the first phase of the investigation.

Peter Daszak and Thea Fischer, members of the WHO team tasked with investigating the origins of COVID-19, sit in a car arriving at the Wuhan Institute of Virology in Wuhan, China, on February 3, 2021 .

Peter Daszak and Thea Fischer, members of the WHO team tasked with investigating the origins of COVID-19, sit in a car arriving at the Wuhan Institute of Virology in Wuhan, China, on February 3, 2021 (Thomas Peter/Reuters)

WHO spokesman Jašarević told Yahoo News this week that while there wouldn’t actually be a “phase two” of the original coronavirus investigation, a WHO panel called Scientific Advisory Group for Origins on New Pathogens (SAGO), would continue to search for answers about how the pandemic started.

Even so, Jašarević acknowledged that limitations remained. “We have said repeatedly and publicly that the origin needs investigation,” he wrote, “and China must provide access and information for this to happen – and if this does not happen, efforts to understand the origins will remain rather hostile”.

These difficulties were partly due, Nature suggested, because then-President Donald Trump had made “unsupported claims” that the virus originated in a Chinese laboratory.

Trump’s claims were initially denounced as xenophobic and conspiratorial, but after gaining support as experts gradually recognize that the so-called lab-leak hypothesis is a plausible explanation. The scientific consensus, however, generally supports the idea that COVID-19 emerged through zoonosis, or transmission from animals to humans, like previous viruses including HIV and Ebola.

“The world politics of this has really hindered progress in understanding the origins,” Van Kerkhove lamented in his interview with Nature.

WHO's COVID-19 chief technical officer Maria Van Kerkhove looks on during a press conference at WHO headquarters in Geneva on December 14, 2022.

Maria Van Kerkhove, WHO technical lead for COVID-19, at a press conference at WHO headquarters in Geneva on December 14, 2022. (Fabrice Coffrini/AFP via Getty Images)

Other experts cited in the article blame the West for China’s malignancy and the trafficking of conspiracy theories. One of those experts, French virologist Angela Rasmussen, later summarized her thoughts on Twitter. “By demonizing and alienating colleagues in China instead of building collaborative trust, this is what the toxic non-stop lab leak conspiracy machine has delivered: the complete and utter disintegration of any meaningful further investigation into the origins of SARS-CoV-2”. she wrote.

The first phase of the WHO investigation included what is still the only authorized visit by Western researchers to Wuhan, the Chinese city where the pandemic is almost universally believed to have started.

But the resulting report has been criticized for not taking more seriously the hypothesis that the virus originated in a laboratory as a result of an accident amid controversial “gain-of-function” research that enhances pathogens to study how they can evolve in nature. .

Several months later, WHO Director Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus acknowledged that it was “premature” to rule out the lab-leak hypothesis.

Tuesday’s article in Nature initially seemed like a concession of defeat, leading to renewed criticism of the WHO’s efforts to press China for more information about the research it had done in Wuhan.

Richard Ebright, a Rutgers microbiologist, accused the WHO on Twitter of “failing – absolutely – in its responsibility to the global public”. describes his initial efforts as “a failed sham of an investigation.”

This general view shows the Wuhan Institute of Virology on February 3, 2021, as members of the WHO team investigating the origins of the COVID-19 coronavirus visit the laboratory.

The Wuhan Institute of Virology on February 3, 2021, as members of the WHO team investigating the origins of COVID-19 visit the laboratory. (Hector Retamal/AFP via Getty Images)

Wednesday afternoon saw a stronger denial from Van Kerkhove herself, in what appeared to be an acknowledgment by WHO officials that they had stumbled into a public relations storm. During a briefing with members of the press, she described the article of Nature as an “error in report” that misrepresented his words. “In a sense, Phase 2 has become SAGO,” which he described as “our best effort to advance this work.”

Van Kerkhove also said the WHO would continue to press China to be more forthcoming with access on the ground. “We continue to request more cooperation and collaboration with our colleagues in China to advance studies to be conducted in China,” he said during the briefing.

“We have not abandoned any plans. We have not stopped working,” he said, although he acknowledged that the investigation of the origins was becoming “more and more difficult” because of how much time had passed since the first cases of coronavirus were recorded in China more than three years ago.

However, Nature signed the initial article. “Nature journalists are in discussion with the World Health Organization regarding their concerns about our article. We are committed to maintaining the highest standards in journalism and taking accuracy very seriously,” he said. Lisa Boucher, Nature communications director, at Yahoo News.

Skeptics saw the whole back-and-forth as evidence of confused priorities. “The article, and the response to it, seems to provide little clarity about who calls the shots and why they call those shots,” mathematical biologist Alex Washburne wrote to Yahoo News in a text message.

An aerial view of the Wuhan Institute of Virology on May 27, 2020.

An aerial view of the Wuhan Institute of Virology on May 27, 2020. (Hector Retamal/AFP via Getty Images)

China’s reluctance to open its laboratories to Western inspectors is a sign to some that a cover-up is at work, Washburne added. “If this didn’t come from a lab in China, then China could definitely rule out the involvement of their labs,” Washburne told Yahoo News. “I can’t imagine any good reason for China not to share this information.”

Washburne was also disturbed when the WHO appointed Jeremy Farrar as its chief scientist late last month.

Farrar had been one of several signatories to a letter – written by Daszak and circulated to prominent medical and public health experts – published in the Lancet in the early days of the pandemic that expressed “solidarity with all scientists and health professionals in China”.

The letter strongly condemned the idea that the coronavirus could have come from a laboratory. “We are united in strongly condemning conspiracy theories that suggest that COVID-19 does not have a natural origin,” the letter said.

The Lancet later added a disclosure describing Daszak’s ties to China.

Leave a Comment