‘Time’s Up’: WHO COVID Origins Team Says Tracing Virus’ Genesis Getting Harder After Probe ‘Stalled’
© REUTERS / Aly SongPeter Ben Embarek, a member of the World Health Organization (WHO) team tasked with investigating the origins of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), attends the WHO-China joint study news conference at a hotel in Wuhan, Hubei province, China February 9, 2021.
China has sharply criticized the push by Western nations to portray the country as hiding vital data on COVID-19 from World Health Organization (WHO) scientists, who have said they encountered no such barriers to their study.
The scientists who traveled to Wuhan earlier this year as part of a study into the origins of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, have written a new article in which they warn that “the process has stalled,” endangering the ability to collect time-sensitive data such as antibodies and placing the entire project in peril.
In an article published in Nature on Wednesday, the 12-person international team reviewed their lines of inquiry in the March report and the leads they reported, noting that some of those leads are in danger of drying up before long.
“The window of opportunity for conducting this crucial inquiry is closing fast: any delay will render some of the studies biologically impossible,” they warned. “Understanding the origins of a devastating pandemic is a global priority, grounded in science.”
“Crucially, the window is rapidly closing on the biological feasibility of conducting the critical trace-back of people and animals inside and outside China. SARS-CoV-2 antibodies wane, so collecting further samples and testing people who might have been exposed before December 2019 will yield diminishing returns,” they wrote, noting that not only do Chinese wildlife farms employ some 14 million people, many of the farms have been closed due to the pandemic and the animals culled, “making any evidence of early coronavirus spillover increasingly difficult to find.”
After they made their recommendations in March, the WHO dragged its feet for months on following up, the scientists said, waiting until July to draw up plans to create a committee to oversee future origins studies.
© AP Photo / Dake KangThe Wuhan Huanan Wholesale Seafood Market, where a number of people related to the market fell ill with a virus, sits closed in Wuhan, China, Tuesday, Jan. 21, 2020.
The Wuhan Huanan Wholesale Seafood Market, where a number of people related to the market fell ill with a virus, sits closed in Wuhan, China, Tuesday, Jan. 21, 2020.
© AP Photo / Dake Kang
While the scientists said they were “pleased” by the prospect of a more organized structure for outbreak origins investigations, they warned that applying it to the SARS-CoV-2 probe “runs the risk of adding several months of delay.”
“Therefore, we call on the scientific community and country leaders to join forces to expedite the phase 2 studies detailed here, while there is still time,” they urged.
Other data they seek is less time-sensitive, such as raw data collected on the 174 COVID-19 cases identified in 2019. The team notes the information wasn’t part of their mandate, but that the WHO has subsequently asked for it and that it’s necessary for a second phase of their investigation.
The team traveled in January 2021 to Wuhan, the Chinese city where the first recorded outbreak of COVID-19 began in late 2019, to conduct a joint study with Chinese scientists into the origins of the virus. They explored four possible vectors, noting that direct or indirect zoonotic introduction were the most plausible pathways - that is, that the virus began in animals and made the jump to humans, either from the reservoir animal population directly into humans or by way of an intermediate host.
One of the primary pathways considered was the Huanan wet market, where a wide array of live animals and frozen meat was sold in Wuhan, and which doctors in the early weeks of the outbreak had quickly identified as the source of many of the cases entering their hospitals.
A four possibility which they had not initially set out to explore, but which was added later, was whether it had escaped from the Wuhan Institute of Virology. As Sputnik has reported, the suggestion gained currency as a conspiracy in far-right circles in early 2020 before being used by then-US President Donald Trump to shift blame onto China for the pandemic, which he called “the China virus” and “kung flu.”
They noted on Wednesday that they “held frank discussions with key scientists in the relevant Wuhan institutions and that “when we reviewed the responses to our questions on this issue, and all other available data, we found no evidence for leads to follow up.”
“In the report, and since, we have publicly called for any data supporting the lab-leak hypothesis to be published and submitted to the WHO. None has, so far.”
© AP Photo / HECTOR RETAMAL(FILES) This file photo taken on April 17, 2020 shows an aerial view of the P4 laboratory at the Wuhan Institute of Virology in Wuhan in China's central Hubei province
(FILES) This file photo taken on April 17, 2020 shows an aerial view of the P4 laboratory at the Wuhan Institute of Virology in Wuhan in China's central Hubei province
© AP Photo / HECTOR RETAMAL
Dissatisfied with their report, US President Joe Biden ordered the US intelligence community to conduct their own COVID-19 origins investigation, noting even the IC was divided about whether or not the virus had escaped the Chinese lab. That report, quietly delivered to the White House on Tuesday, was just as inconclusive, according to a report by the Washington Post that cited administration insiders.
“It is baffling that while the US accuses China of lacking transparency in origins research and spreading disinformation,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin told reporters on Tuesday. “[I]t has been reticent and elusive on the origins study and stonewalling and obstructing relevant work itself.”
“We have invited WHO experts to China twice for origins research. Together with their Chinese colleagues, they have compiled an authoritative joint report. We urge the US to stop the clumsy trick of shifting blames to smear and denigrate China, disclose and test data of early cases at home as soon as possible and invite WHO experts to conduct origins research in the US as soon as possible so as to give the international community and the American people an explanation based on science and justice,” Wang added.