World Health Organization’s Coronavirus Investigation Report Meets Widespread Condemnation

On Tuesday, March 30, the World Health Organization published its coronavirus origins investigation report, which promptly met criticism from a surprising source: the organization’s own leader, Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. In January 2021, a team of WHO researchers arrived in Wuhan, after a long delay, to investigate the beginning of the pandemic. The investigation did not reach an immediate conclusion, and some team members alleged that political interference had hindered their work. The final report found that coronavirus most likely spilled into humans from animal sources, and ruled out the possibility that the virus escaped from a laboratory in a “lab leak.” Tedros sharply criticized the latter conclusion and China’s opacity with critical early pandemic data, much of which was off-limits to WHO investigators. At The Washington Post, Emily Rauhala summarized the mission’s findings, which some team members complained were based on incomplete access to data:

The report, officially launched Tuesday, concludes that the virus probably jumped from animals to humans and downplayed the idea it could have leaked from a Wuhan lab.

It presented data gathered by Chinese scientists and analyzed by the international team, recommending further study of the possible path of transmission between species and through frozen food — a fringe theory favored by Beijing. It did not recommend additional research on the lab-leak hypothesis.

[…] Tedros said Tuesday that members of the joint mission team raised concerns to him about access to raw epidemiological data needed for the report, according to a WHO transcript of his remarks. [Source]

In explaining the team’s reasoning, Peter Ben Embarek, the leader of the WHO’s origins investigation team, said that “Lab accidents do happen . . . so of course it’s possible […] But we have not been able to hear or see or look at anything that would warrant a different conclusion.” The lab leak theory received a renewed flurry of attention this past week after the former Trump administration’s Centers for Disease and Prevention chief Robert Redfield opined that coronavirus might have escaped from a lab during a CNN interview. Tedros’ criticism is not an endorsement of that narrative, instead targeting the shallow nature of the team’s investigation. At The New York Times, Javier C. Hernández wrote that the WHO team simply accepted the Wuhan Insititue of Virology’s assurance that the virus did not escape from its lab:

“I do not believe that this assessment was extensive enough,” [Tedros] said on Tuesday at a briefing for member states on the report, according to prepared remarks released to the news media. “Further data and studies will be needed to reach more robust conclusions.”

The experts had said that officials at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, which houses a state-of-the-art laboratory known for its research on bat coronaviruses, assured them that they were not handling any viruses that appeared to be closely related to the coronavirus that caused the recent pandemic, according to meeting notes included in the report. They also said that staff members had been trained in security protocols.

The report noted that a separate laboratory run by the Wuhan Center for Disease Control and Prevention had moved in late 2019 to a new location near the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market in Wuhan, where many early cases of Covid-19 emerged. The expert team said that there appeared to be no connection, writing that the lab had not reported any “disruptions or incidents caused by the move” and had not been doing research on coronaviruses. [Source]

At The New York Times, Javier C. Hernández, again, and James Gorman dove further into the scientific community’s views on the WHO team’s investigation into the lab leak hypothesis:

Jesse Bloom, an evolutionary biologist at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, said he was not convinced that a laboratory leak was extremely unlikely, after seeing a copy of the report. He said he agreed that it was highly plausible that the virus could have evolved naturally to spread to humans, but he did not see any reasoning in the report to dismiss the possibility of a lab escape.

One member of the team of experts, Peter Daszak, a British disease ecologist who runs EcoHealth Alliance, a New York-based pandemic prevention group, pushed back against the criticism of the team’s work and of China’s level of cooperation. He said the lab leak hypothesis was “political from the start.” Dr. Daszak added that the W.H.O. team was not restricted in its interviews with scientists who were on the ground at the start of the pandemic.

He himself has been accused of having a conflict of interest because of his past research on coronaviruses with the Wuhan Institute of Virology, which, he said, was what a disease ecologist should be doing. [Source]

At the prominent science publication Nature, Amy Maxmen documented the report’s findings on Wuhan’s Huanan Market, where the virus may have first jumped from animal to humans:

Much of it is devoted to COVID-19 cases occurring in December 2019 and January 2020. Two-thirds of the 170-odd people who had symptoms in December reported having been exposed to live or dead animals shortly beforehand, and 10% had travelled outside Wuhan.

Chinese researchers sequenced the genomes of SARS-CoV-2 from some of the people in this group, finding that eight of the earliest sequences were identical, and that infected people were linked to the Huanan market. This suggests an outbreak there, according to the report.

[…] The researchers also looked at death certificates in China, and found a steep increase in the number of weekly deaths in the week beginning 15 January 2020. They found that the death rate peaked first in Wuhan, and then, two weeks later, in the wider province of Hubei, suggesting that the outbreak began in Wuhan. The report also publishes data on people seeking care for respiratory infections, which similarly suggests that COVID-19 didn’t begin taking off until January. [Source]

An international coalition led by the United States mirrored Tedros’ criticism. A statement issued by the governments of Australia, Canada, Czechia, Denmark, Estonia, Israel, Japan, Latvia, Lithuania, Norway, the Republic of Korea, Slovenia, the United Kingdom, and the United States of America read: “we voice our shared concerns that the international expert study on the source of the SARS-CoV-2 virus was significantly delayed and lacked access to complete, original data and samples.” At The Wall Street Journal, Drew Hinshaw and Jeremy Page reported on international criticism of the WHO’s investigation:

The WHO report lacks crucial data, information and access, said White House press secretary Jen Psaki. “It represents a partial and incomplete picture,” she said Tuesday. “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, and that’s why we also have called for additional forward-looking steps.”

[…] The EU delegation’s statement said it regretted the late start of the Wuhan mission and the limited availability of early samples and related data, although it described the report released Tuesday as an important first step.

Further progress “will require further and timely access to all relevant locations and to all relevant human, animal and environmental data available, including data from the first identified Covid-19 cases and cases picked up by surveillance systems, as well as further serologic testing of blood samples,” it said.

Neither the EU statement or the one involving the U.S. mentioned the possibility of a laboratory origin. [Source]

The report ruled out the possibility that the virus had been brought to Wuhan by the United States military during the October 2019 Military hosted in the city. During a press conference, an AFP reporter asked about the Chinese previous attempts to push a conspiracy that the virus originated in Fort Detrick, an American military base. Hua Chunying, a ministry spokesperson, claimed that “there is still a big question mark over the the lab at Fort Detrick.” At Global Times, Chen Qingqing, Zhao Yusha, and Cao Siqi’s wrote that some Chinese scientists still believe the virus was imported into Wuhan on frozen food provided to the soldiers during the Games:

The WHO report also touched upon the hypothesis of the 7th Military World Games regarding virus origins, a possibility previously raised by a Chinese epidemiologist. The WHO report said that “no appreciable signals of clusters of fever or severe respiratory disease requiring hospitalization were identified during a review of these ,” but recommended a further joint review of the data on respiratory illness from on-site clinics during the games.

[…] The Chinese expert, who asked for anonymity, said that they obtained records from the Wuhan government, which show many countries had transported food to Wuhan during the event, many via cold chain route. “But now we only have records, no samples, so it will be difficult for us to find the evidence,” he admitted.

The scientist also said it is highly probable that the virus was transmitted via cold chain, given the fact that cold chains triggered most of the later outbreaks in China after the one in Wuhan. “But at the early stage, all eyes were fixed on animals, so not enough samples were connected in the cold chain environment,” said the expert, suggesting further research in this area. [Source]

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