Covid lab leak theory needs further investigation, WHO head says
The head of the World Health Organization has criticised China for withholding information on the origins of the pandemic and warned that the investigation into a potential laboratory leak was “not extensive enough”.
In a statement to member states during a briefing on the WHO’s long-awaited report into how the virus emerged, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director general of the UN health agency, issued a rare rebuke to China.
He said investigators had reported difficulties in “accessing raw data” and “would benefit from full access to data including biological samples from at least September 2019”.
“I expect future collaborative studies to include more timely and comprehensive data sharing,” he said, insisting that “all hypotheses remain on the table”.
The WHO – and Dr Tedros himself – have been criticised for being too close to China, so this veiled rebuke will be welcomed by some.
The 123-page report, outlining the key findings from a highly-anticipated research trip to Wuhan, was published on Tuesday. It concluded that, while possible, it is “extremely unlikely” that Sars-Cov-2 escaped from a lab.
The city where the virus first emerged is home to several high security labs – including China’s foremost zoonotic disease research centre, the Wuhan Institute of Virology – and rumours the virus escaped from here have circulated since the start of the pandemic.
But the report concluded it was most likely that Sars-Cov-2 passed from bats via an “intermediate animal host” to humans, before sparking an “explosive outbreak” in Wuhan in December 2019.
On Tuesday, the United States, UK and 12 other countries issued a joint statement expressing concerns that the report was delayed and that the international scientists lacked access to complete data.
“It is equally essential that 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,” they said.
The statement was signed 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.
Meanwhile, the European Union said that while the findings were a “helpful first step”, they regret the delays and the “limited availability of early samples and related data”.
At a press conference on Tuesday Dr Peter Ben-Embarek, head of the WHO mission, said the “zoonotic origins” of the pandemic had been the agreed remit of the investigation, not a potential laboratory accident.
“Since this was not the key or main focus of our studies, it did not receive the same depth of attention and work as the other hypotheses,” Dr Ben-Embarek told reporters.
But he insisted that the conclusions reached “should not be seen as a static product”, because they could change as more data becomes available. He added that while some raw data was withheld by China due to privacy laws and time constraints, the country had still provided an “an incredible amount of data”.
“Of course there are areas where we had difficulties in getting down to the raw data, and there are many good reasons for that,” Dr Ben-Embarek said. “In China, like in many other countries, there are restrictions on privacy laws that forbid the sharing of data, including private details to outsiders in particular.
“Where we did not have full access to the overall data, this has been put as a recommendation for future studies. So the idea is that, because we didn’t have time or because certain authorisation needs to be given before we could get access to the data, all that could be done in the second phase of studies.”
The Telegraph understands that members of the existing international team hope to remain involved in future stages of research into the pandemic’s origins.
“This report is a very important beginning, but it is not the end,” said Dr Tedros. “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. No single research trip can provide all the answers.”
Dr Tedros also called for more studies to understand the earliest human cases and clusters which centred around the Huanan market in Wuhan, central China.
“The team has confirmed that there was widespread contamination with Sars-CoV-2 in the Huanan market in Wuhan, but could not determine the source of this contamination,” he said.
The investigative team of 34 Chinese and international scientists, said it remains “possible” the virus entered Wuhan through frozen food, imported from another area of China or even from overseas – although there is scant evidence to support this in the report or its annexes.
On the question of undue influence from China, Dr Ben-Embarek insisted that the international team was “never pressured to remove critical elements in our report”, which was written in collaboration with the Chinese experts.
“Of course there was political pressure from all sides, also outside China. But I think we were able to create a space for the science, space for the two groups of scientists to work together.”
Dr Ben-Embarek added: “This is only a first start – we’ve only scratched the surface of this very complex set of studies that need to be conducted. And we have pointed to many additional studies that should be conducted from now on. This is a work in progress we all have to be patient.”