The World Health Organization’s chief said a mission to study the origins of the coronavirus in China was too quick to dismiss the theory of a lab leak, with the U.S. and other governments joining in criticism of the investigation.
WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said the probe didn’t adequately analyze the possibility of a lab accident before deciding it’s most likely the pathogen spread from bats to humans via another animal. In a briefing to member countries Tuesday, he said he is ready to deploy additional missions involving specialist experts.
“Although the team has concluded that a laboratory leak is the least likely hypothesis, this requires further investigation,” Tedros said in a statement. Although the WHO chief has consistently said all lines of inquiry are open, Tuesday’s comments mark the first time he’s speculated about the possibility of an accidental escape.
Afterward, a group of more than a dozen nations, including Japan and the U.S., issued a joint statement saying the mission’s report “lacked access to complete, original data and samples,” and called for more transparency and timeliness in response to future outbreaks.
“We support a transparent and independent analysis and evaluation, free from interference and undue influence,” of COVID-19’s origins, the statement said. “We join in expressing shared concerns regarding the recent WHO-convened study in China.”
The mission’s origin report confirmed what researchers said in mid-February at the conclusion of their four-week mission to Wuhan, the central Chinese city where the first COVID-19 cases emerged at the end of 2019, and in subsequent interviews.
Tedros had been criticized by Donald Trump’s administration for being too deferential to China in the early days of the pandemic. Trump even began the process for the U.S. to exit the WHO, which President Joe Biden reversed on his first day in office. Tedros said he would expect future studies to involve quicker and better data-sharing in some of his most pointed comments directed against China.
The country has pushed back firmly against any suggestions of a leak from a high-security virus lab in Wuhan, a theory advanced by Robert Redfield, who led the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention during the first year of the pandemic.
“To understand the earliest cases, scientists would benefit from full access to data, including biological samples from at least September 2019,” Tedros said. “We have not yet found the source of the virus, and we must continue to follow the science and leave no stone unturned.”
The mission was organized jointly by the WHO and China.
Peter Ben Embarek, co-leader of the trip, said at a news conference that the lab hypothesis wasn’t the main focus of the investigation and so didn’t receive the same depth of attention and work as other theories. The team didn’t do a full investigation of the labs, he said.
Suspicion of a possible leak in Wuhan was “logical speculation by everyone” at the onset of the pandemic, but the team couldn’t find any firm proof or evidence of it, Ben Embarek said.
“It’s not impossible that that would have happened,” he said. “This is a dynamic process. Nothing is cast in stone.”
Ben Embarek said his team would also be interested in studying whether the origin of the virus might lie beyond China’s borders, and that they were “following the evidence.”
“Of course there was political pressure from all sides,” Ben Embarek said. “But we had no problem working in an open environment. We were never pressured to remove critical elements from the report.”
Aside from Japan and the U.S., the statement critical of the mission was released by the governments of Australia, Canada, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Israel, Latvia, Lithuania, Norway, South Korea, Slovenia and the U.K.
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