The World Health Organization’s leader said the Chinese government failed to provide access to biological data from as early as September 2019 to COVID-19 origins investigators and argued the joint WHO-China inquiry did not conduct an extensive enough assessment of a possible Wuhan lab leak.
Officials from both the Trump and Biden administrations have said that the Chinese government worked for over a year to thwart an independent investigation into the origins of the virus, which has killed 2.79 million people worldwide, and both administrations cast doubt on the manner in which the WHO- China study was conducted in early 2021. The highly anticipated and deeply controversial 120-page report was made public on Tuesday morning ahead of a press conference by the WHO’s investigative team.
Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said Tuesday that the Chinese government should’ve provided more complete data, especially related to the early stages of the coronavirus outbreak, and said the WHO-China team had not fully investigated the potential of COVID-19 originating through an accidental escape or leak from a Wuhan lab, a hypothesis he insisted still needed further study despite being essentially dismissed by the WHO-China team.
“The team also visited several laboratories in Wuhan and considered the possibility that the virus entered the human population as a result of a laboratory incident. However, I do not believe that this assessment was extensive enough,” Tedros said. “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.”
Tedros added: “Let me say clearly that as far as WHO is concerned, all hypotheses remain on the table. This report is a very important beginning, but it is not the end. We have not yet found the source of the virus, and we must continue to follow the science and leave no stone unturned as we do. Finding the origin of a virus takes time, and we owe it to the world to find the source so we can collectively take steps to reduce the risk of this happening again.”
The WHO-China report said it looked at four specific scenarios: direct transmission from animals to humans, transmission to humans through an intermediate animal host, an introduction through the frozen food chain, or an accidental lab escape. It concluded that animal to animal to human transmission was the most likely, while a Wuhan lab leak was “extremely unlikely” and didn’t propose further studies for it.
Tedros also critiqued a lack of certain data provided by China.
“The report presents a comprehensive review of available data, suggesting that there was unrecognized transmission in December 2019, and possibly earlier. The team reports that the first detected case had symptom onset on the 8th of December 2019. But to understand the earliest cases, scientists would benefit from full access to data including biological samples from at least September 2019,” Tedros said. “In my discussions with the team, they expressed the difficulties they encountered in accessing raw data. I expect future collaborative studies to include more timely and comprehensive data sharing.”
Mike Pompeo, the secretary of state under President Donald Trump, slammed the WHO-China report.
“The WHO report is a sham continuation of the CCP-WHO disinformation campaign. It’s why I recommended we leave WHO,” Pompeo tweeted. “Dr. Tedros collaborated with Xi to hide human to human transmission at a CRITICAL juncture. WIV remains the most likely source of the virus — and WHO is complicit.”
A Trump State Department fact sheet on the Wuhan Institute of Virology declassified in mid-January assessed that lab workers had fallen ill with COVID-19-like symptoms before the wider Wuhan outbreak in 2019 and that the Wuhan lab had conducted secret experiments with the Chinese military and gain-of-function research, though it did not draw specific conclusions about COVID-19’s origin.
The Biden administration has declined to weigh in on the fact sheet, though the Washington Post reported that an unnamed Biden State Department official said that “there wasn’t significant or meaningful disagreement regarding the information presented in the fact sheet.”
The WHO-China report claimed that “the three laboratories in Wuhan working with either CoVs diagnostics and/or CoVs isolation and vaccine development all had high quality biosafety level (BSL3 or 4) facilities that were well-managed, with a staff health monitoring programme with no reporting of COVID-19 compatible respiratory illness during the weeks/months prior to December 2019.”
But State Department cables sent from Beijing in 2018 warned of biosecurity problems at the Wuhan lab, noting that “the new lab has a serious shortage of appropriately trained technicians and investigators needed to safely operate this high-containment laboratory.”
Lab researchers “conducted experiments involving RaTG13, the bat coronavirus identified by the WIV in January 2020 as its closest sample to SARS-CoV-2 (96.2% similar),” the State Department fact sheet contended, adding that the lab “has a published record of conducting ‘gain-of-function’ research to engineer chimeric viruses.”
“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,” the State Department fact sheet read, also claiming that the Wuhan lab “has engaged in classified research, including laboratory animal experiments, on behalf of the Chinese military since at least 2017.”
Biden administration officials have also cast doubt on the WHO-China study.
Matt Pottinger, Trump’s former deputy national security adviser, argued in February that “if you weigh the circumstantial evidence, the ledger on the side of an explanation that says that this resulted from some kind of human error, it far outweighs the side of the scale that says this was some natural outbreak.”
Antony Blinken, Biden’s secretary of state, cast doubt on the report on Sunday, saying: “We’ve got real concerns about the methodology and the process that went into that report, including the fact that the government in Beijing apparently helped to write it.”
Dr. Robert Redfield, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention under Trump, said COVID-19 likely originated through an accidental escape from the Wuhan lab and hinted this occurred following gain-of-function research there.
“I am of the point of view that I still think the most likely etiology of this pathology in Wuhan was from a laboratory. Escaped,” Redfield said, adding that “it’s not unusual for respiratory pathogens that are being worked on in a laboratory to infect the laboratory worker.”
The Chinese government denies that the coronavirus originated in a Wuhan lab and has also cast doubt on the idea that it originated in China.
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