The joint investigation by researchers from the World Health Organization (WHO) and China offers insight — not answers — into the origins of the COVID-19 outbreak that has transformed the world. While its details are helpful, study participants and informed observers continue to focus on the many unknowns that persist after release of the report last week. Politics and science have battled for supremacy — and it looks like politics prevailed.
Questions have swirled around the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic that swept the world last year. While virtually all evidence pointed to China as the source of the outbreak, precisely when the disease appeared and where it came from are bitterly contested. The WHO-China report places the start of the outbreak in the second half of 2019, somewhat earlier than thought; the world was first alerted to the existence of the novel coronavirus in January 2020 as the city of Wuhan grappled with a strange and virulent disease.
The report offers four theories on the origins of COVID-19 and concluded that transmission of the virus from bats to humans through another animal is the most likely scenario. Direct spread from bats to human was likely; spread to humans from the packaging of “cold-chain” food products, a theory popular in China, was possible; a leak from the Wuhan Institute of Virology, a hypothesis advanced by critics of Beijing made especially forcefully by Trump administration officials, is “extremely unlikely.”
While the Chinese government applauded the report, others were much more critical. Dismissal of the “lab leak theory” generated considerable pushback, with supporters of the hypothesis charging the research team’s visit to the Wuhan laboratory was stage managed and did not provide meaningful access to data.
In a joint statement released almost simultaneously with the WHO-China report, 14 countries, Japan among them, expressed “shared concerns” that the study “was significantly delayed and lacked access to complete, original data and samples.” U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken more bluntly complained that “We’ve got real concerns about the methodology and the process that went into that report, including the fact that the government in Beijing apparently helped to write it.”
The signatories of the joint statement called for “a renewed commitment by WHO and all Member States to access, transparency, and timeliness” and “a robust, comprehensive, and expert-led mechanism” to investigate disease outbreaks “that is conducted with full and open collaboration among all stakeholders and in accordance with the principles of transparency, respect for privacy, and scientific and research integrity.”
Joining the criticism was Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the WHO director-general, who came under fire last year for being too accommodating toward Beijing. He agreed that “all hypotheses remain on the table” and called for “further investigation of the laboratory leak theory.”
China rejects all criticism. A foreign ministry spokesperson asserted that the report “ruled out” the lab leak hypothesis. A Chinese scientist on the investigating team explained that the WHO team got the same data as did Chinese officials, and any restrictions were the product of Chinese laws about privacy and national security.
Those rebuttals are undercut by indisputable Chinese government efforts to cover up the outbreak when it first appeared in Wuhan in December 2019 and January 2020. There is ample reporting of Chinese government attempts to subsequently control all research on the origins of the disease. Doubts about China’s commitment to a full and complete understanding of what transpired are justified.
Getting answers to these unanswered questions will be difficult enough without Beijing’s attempts to manage, if not obstruct, any investigation. Scientists point out that even after 40 years, they still do not know which species of bat serves as the natural reservoir for Ebola.
Answers are essential. More than a year after the disease first appeared in humans, efforts must focus on prevention rather than merely detecting and responding to the coronavirus. Scientists cannot prevent future outbreaks if they cannot figure out where COVID-19 came from and establish the routes the virus traveled as it journeyed from animals to humans. One focus should be the individuals who worked in and the animals traded at Wuhan markets. Another is finding out which animal(s) provided the critical stepping stone from bats to humans. Both are among the recommendations of the WHO-China report for additional studies.
Even without accepting the theory that the virus leaked from a lab (a “lab accident”) or the more damning assertion that it was manufactured there (a “lab construct”), more attention must be paid to these facilities. China has had safety breaches in the past, but other countries, including the U.S., have had troubling incidents as well. While there are two international standards for medical laboratories that conduct this type of work, remarkably, there is no single international dedicated standard for biosafety level 4 (BSL-4) laboratories, like the one in Wuhan. Instead, governments rely on the WHO Laboratory Biosafety Manual for guidance. This is inexcusable.
Finally, it is clear that the WHO plays a vital role in responding to pandemic diseases and outbreaks are going to become more frequent. Given this role, all governments must remain engaged with the WHO to ensure that its work is impartial, objective, accurate and reliable.
The Japan Times Editorial Board
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