‘All hypotheses still open’ in WHO probe of COVID-19 origins

Geneva: All hypotheses are still on the table in the World Health Organisation’s search for the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said, after Washington asked to review data from the WHO-led mission to China.

Tedros’ comments appeared to pull back on the investigating team’s remarks that the lab-leak theory was “extremely unlikely” and required no further study, according to Peter Ben Embarek, a food-safety scientist and head of the mission.

The Wuhan Institute of Virology in central China. WHO now says the theory the virus came from one of the institute’s labs is still on the table.Credit:AP

WHO has faced criticism since the start of the pandemic that it was too deferential to China. Former US president Donald Trump advanced the theory the virus might have escaped from a high-security virology lab in Wuhan, the Chinese city where it was first detected.

As he left China on Tuesday, Embarek said the theory had been ruled out after institute staff were questioned about what they thought about the possibility. “They’re the best ones to dismiss the claims and provide answers to all the questions,” he said. He did not say if samples had been taken from the lab or provided by Chinese scientists.

China has long said the lab, the Wuhan Institute of Virology, never possessed the COVID-19 virus.

Peter Ben Embarek, WHO mission head, holds up a chart showing pathways of transmission of the virus.Credit:AP

But Tedros told a briefing in Genevaon Saturday (AEDT): “Some questions have been raised as to whether some hypotheses have been discarded. Having spoken with some members of the team, I wish to confirm that all hypotheses remain open and require further analysis and study.”

“Some of that work may lie outside the remit and scope of this mission. We have always said that this mission would not find all the answers, but it has added important information that takes us closer to understanding the origins of the COVID-19 virus,” he said.

Tedros said a summary report of the mission’s findings could be ready as early as next week, followed by a final report “in the coming weeks”. Both would be made public.

The mission has said its main hypotheses are that the virus originated in a bat, although there are several possible scenarios for how it passed to humans, possibly first by infecting another species of animal.

It followed months of negotiation with Beijing. Stung by criticism that it initially covered up the extent of the crisis, Chinese state media and officials have promoted the theory that the virus didn’t start in China, but was brought in. Among the promoted origin theories were imported frozen-food packaging, international travellers and even a US cycling team competing in China.

When pressed on why the mission did not believe a lab could have been the source, Embarek said lab scientists had told his team they didn’t have it. If they had been studying it before the outbreak, he said, it would not have been a secret.

“Usually laboratory researchers who work and discover new viruses would immediately publish their findings. That’s a common practice around the world, particularly with new, interesting viruses,” he said.

Reuters, Bloomberg

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