Wuhan again? WHO for re-look at lab leak theory to identify COVID's source
Over two years after the coronavirus was first detected in China, and after at least 6.3 million deaths recorded worldwide, the World Health Organization (WHO) is recommending that a deeper probe is required into whether a lab accident may be to blame.
This is a sharp reversal of the WHO’s initial assessment of the pandemic’s origins. WHO had concluded last year that it was “extremely unlikely” COVID-19 might have spilled into humans in the city of Wuhan from a lab. Many scientists suspect the coronavirus jumped into people from bats, possibly via another animal.
But in a report released on Thursday, WHO’s expert group said “key pieces of data” to explain how the pandemic began were still missing, reports the Associated Press. The scientists said the group would “remain open to any and all scientific evidence that becomes available in the future to allow for comprehensive testing of all reasonable hypotheses.”
WHO’s expert group also noted that since lab accidents in the past have triggered some outbreaks, the highly politicized theory could not be discounted.
The report could revive accusations that WHO initially was too accepting of Chinese government explanations early in the outbreak, which killed millions of people.
Investigations by The Associated Press found that some top WHO insiders were frustrated by China during the initial outbreak even as WHO heaped praise on Chinese President Xi Jinping. They were also upset over how China sought to clamp down on research into the origins of COVID-19.
WHO’s letters to China
WHO’s expert group said WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus sent two letters to senior Chinese government officials in February requesting information, including details about the earliest human cases of COVID-19 in Wuhan. It’s unclear whether the Chinese have responded or not.
The experts said no studies were provided to WHO that assessed the possibility of COVID-19 resulting from a laboratory leak.
To investigate whether COVID-19 might have been the result of a lab accident, WHO experts said interviews should be conducted “with the staff in the laboratories tasked with managing and implementing biosafety and biosecurity.”
Identifying a disease’s source in animals typically takes years. It took more than a decade for scientists to pinpoint the species of bats that were the natural reservoir for SARS, a relative of COVID-19, the report points out.
WHO’s expert scientists said numerous avenues of research were needed, including studies evaluating the role of wild animals, and environmental studies in places where the virus might have first spread, like the Huanan seafood market in Wuhan.
In March 2021, WHO released a report about COVID-19′s origins following a highly publicised visit by international scientists to China. The report concluded that the disease most likely jumped into humans from bats and that there was no evidence to suggest there was a connection to a laboratory.
Yet after considerable criticism, including from some scientists on WHO’s team, the agency’s director acknowledged that it was “premature” to rule out a lab leak.
In its new report, WHO said the experts were given access to data that included unpublished blood samples from more than 40,000 people in Wuhan in 2019. The samples were tested for COVID-19 antibodies. None were found, suggesting the virus was not spreading widely before it was first identified in late December that year, the AP report says.
WHO experts call for ‘numerous studies’
WHO’s experts called for numerous studies to be done, including testing wild animals to find which species might host COVID-19. They also said the “cold chain” supply theory should be probed. China has previously advanced the idea that traces of COVID-19 on frozen packaging was causing outbreaks rather than any domestic source, a theory widely panned by outside scientists.
China has called the suggestion that COVID-19 began in a laboratory “baseless” and countered that the virus originated in American facilities, which were also known to be researching coronaviruses in animals. The Chinese government has said it supports the search for the pandemic’s origins, but that other countries should be the focus.
In a footnote to the report, WHO’s group noted that three of its own experts — scientists from China, Brazil and Russia — disagreed with the call to investigate the possibility of COVID-19 being sparked by a lab accident.