By MARIA CHENG and JAMEY KEATEN, Associated Press
GENEVA (AP) – More than two years after the emergence of the coronavirus in China and after at least 6.3 million deaths have been counted worldwide due to the pandemic, the World Health Organization recommends in its strongest terms that further investigation is needed to find out if a lab accident may be to blame.
The stance marks a sharp reversal of the UN health agency’s initial assessment of the origins of the pandemic, and comes after many critics accused the WHO of being too quick to dismiss or play down a theory lab leaks that put Chinese officials on the defensive.
The WHO concluded last year that it was “extremely unlikely” that COVID-19 had spread to Wuhan city from a laboratory. Many scientists suspect that the coronavirus jumped to people from bats, possibly via another animal.
Yet in a report released on Thursday, the WHO expert panel said “key pieces of data” to explain the start of the pandemic were still missing. The scientists said the group would “remain open to all scientific evidence that becomes available in the future to allow full testing of all reasonable hypotheses”.
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Identifying the source of disease in animals usually takes years. It took scientists more than a decade to identify the bat species that were the natural reservoir for SARS, a relative of COVID-19.
The WHO expert panel also noted that since laboratory accidents in the past have triggered some outbreaks, the highly politicized theory cannot be dismissed.
The report could reignite accusations that the WHO too initially accepted the Chinese government’s explanations at the start of the epidemic, which ultimately killed millions, sickened millions more, forced dozens of countries to lock down and disrupt the global economy.
Associated Press investigations found that some senior WHO officials were frustrated with China during the initial outbreak, even as the WHO praised Chinese President Xi Jinping. They were also upset with how China has sought to suppress research into the origins of COVID-19.
Former US President Donald Trump has repeatedly speculated – without evidence – that COVID-19 was started in a Chinese lab. He also accused the WHO of “colluding” with China to cover up the initial outbreak, citing the UN health agency’s continued public praise for the country despite China’s refusal to share crucial data.
The WHO expert panel said WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus sent two letters to senior Chinese government officials in February asking for information, including details of the first cases. humans from COVID-19 in the city of Wuhan. It is not known whether the Chinese responded.
Experts said no studies had been provided to the WHO to assess the possibility that COVID-19 resulted from a laboratory leak. They said their understanding of how the coronavirus emerged was limited by several factors, including that not all research presented by Chinese scientists has been published.
Jamie Metzl, who sits on an independent WHO advisory group, has suggested that the Group of Seven industrialized countries set up their own investigation into the origins of COVID, saying the WHO lacks the political authority , expertise and independence to conduct such a critical assessment.
Metzl welcomed the WHO’s call for further investigation into the possibility of a lab leak, but said it was insufficient.
“Tragically, the Chinese government still refuses to share essential raw data and will not allow the necessary full audit of Wuhan labs,” he said. “Access to this information is critical both to understanding how this pandemic began and to preventing future pandemics.”
WHO expert scientists said many avenues of research were needed, including studies assessing the role of wild animals and environmental studies in places where the virus may have first spread, such as the market. seafood from Huanan to Wuhan.
In March 2021, the WHO released a report on the origins of COVID-19 following a highly choreographed visit by international scientists to China. The report concluded that the disease most likely jumped to humans from bats and there was no evidence to suggest a laboratory link.
Yet after much criticism, including from some scientists on the WHO team, WHO chief Tedros admitted it was “premature” to rule out a lab leak and said said he had asked China to be more transparent in sharing information.
In its new report, the WHO said experts had access to data including unpublished blood samples from more than 40,000 people in Wuhan in 2019. The samples were tested for COVID-19 antibodies. None have been found, suggesting the virus was not spreading widely before it was first identified in late December this year.
WHO experts have called for numerous studies, including testing in wild animals, to determine which species might harbor COVID-19. They also said the “cold chain” supply theory should be probed. China has previously put forward the idea that traces of COVID-19 on frozen packaging cause outbreaks rather than any domestic source, a theory widely dismissed by outside scientists.
To determine whether COVID-19 could have been the result of a laboratory accident, WHO experts said interviews should be conducted “with laboratory personnel responsible for managing and implementing biosecurity and biosecurity”.
China called the suggestion that COVID-19 started in a lab “baseless” and countered that the virus came from US facilities, which were also known to conduct research on coronaviruses in animals. The Chinese government has said it supports finding the origins of the pandemic, but other countries should be the focus.
In a footnote to the report, the WHO 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 triggered by a laboratory accident.
Scientists linked to the WHO lamented in August 2021 that the search for the origins of the pandemic had stalled and the window of opportunity was “closing rapidly”. They warned that collecting data that was now at least two years old was increasingly difficult.
Cheng reported from London.
Follow AP’s coverage of the pandemic at https://apnews.com/hub/coronavirus-pandemic
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