The World Health Organization scientists investigating the origins of COVID-19 have warned the window is “closing fast” — as China continues refusing to share crucial data.
“The search for the origins of SARS-CoV-2 is at a critical juncture,” the 11 scientists dispatched to China earlier this year by the WHO warned in the scientific journal Nature.
“The window of opportunity for conducting this crucial inquiry is closing fast: any delay will render some of the studies biologically impossible,” wrote the 11 scientists.
“The Chinese team was and still is reluctant to share raw data,” the scientists wrote, noting details of 174 cases identified in December 2019 that Beijing refused to share citing patient confidentiality concerns.
“The WHO had demanded it during the investigation, and has done so since,” but to no avail, the team said, stressing that “understanding the origins of a devastating pandemic is a global priority.”
The commentary was published Wednesday, a day after a US intelligence probe into the origins proved “inconclusive” — and as the pandemic has killed nearly 4.5 million people worldwide, with more than 214 million reported infections.
The WHO team largely defended its much-maligned initial report from its fact-finding mission to China that was published in March, while also stressing that it had not ruled out the lab-leak theory.
“It was meant to be the first step in a process that has stalled,” the group wrote of the initial report, which even WHO’s Director-General Tedros Adhanom Gheybreyesus accused of prematurely ruling out a lab leak.
The team insisted that that “lab-leak hypothesis” was “not part of the WHO’s original terms of reference for the team.”
However, they “found the laboratory origin hypothesis too important to ignore, so brought it into the discussions with our Chinese counterparts,” the scientists insisted.
“And we included it as one of the hypotheses for [COVID-19] origin in our report, the team insisted, arguing that attacks on its preliminary findings were largely due to “miscommunication and misunderstanding.”
“We explicitly state in the report that it is possible,” the scientists said of the “laboratory origin hypothesis.”
They noted how they “spoke to the leadership and staff at the three Wuhan labs handling coronaviruses: the Wuhan Institute of Virology, the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Wuhan, and the Hubei provincial CDC.”
“We held frank discussions with key scientists in the relevant Wuhan institutions — a line of inquiry that exceeded our original mandate,” the team insisted.
However, the “initial study was not expected to provide definitive answers,” merely “form the foundation of a longer process of scientific investigation that could last for months or years,” they wrote.
They also noted new information that has emerged — including confirmation of live animals in Wuhan wet markets — saying it “would have been welcomed by the team had it been available earlier.”
“It needs to be taken up in the phase 2 studies,” the team wrote.
The commentary was signed by all 11 members of the WHO’s team, including Peter Daszak, the founder of New York-based EcoHealth Alliance who has been attacked for his close ties to Wuhan labs as well as his role in trying to dismiss the lab-leak theory.
The team insisted that “all the members … each submitted detailed, confidential statements to the WHO on potential conflicts of interest, including funding, collaborative studies, public statements and other issues around the origins of COVID-19 that could be perceived as conflicts.”
“After the WHO had reviewed these, team members were appointed in their individual capacity, not as representatives of their employers,” they insisted.
China has repeatedly denied that the pandemic leaked from one of its labs, and on Wednesday threatened to retaliate on those pushing it.
“We do not accept baseless and unfounded accusations that are politically motivated,” said Fu Cong, director-general of the Foreign Ministry’s Arms Control Department.
“And if they want to baselessly accuse China, so they better be prepared to accept the counterattack from China,” he warned on Wednesday.
Congcalled it a “pity” the search for COVID-19’s origins has stalled but said it wasn’t China’s fault.
“China has always supported and will continue to participate in the science-based origin tracing efforts,” he insisted on Wednesday.
He accused the US of “hyping the lab leak theory” and trying to shift the blame onto China, once again implying that it might be linked to high-level American research labs, suggesting the WHO investigate them instead.