Director-general of the World Health Organization Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. Picture: REUTERS/FABRICE COFFRINI
Director-general of the World Health Organization Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. Picture: REUTERS/FABRICE COFFRINI

Geneva/Zurich — The World Health Organisation’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 US and other governments joining in criticism of the investigation.

WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said the probe did not adequately analyse the possibility of a lab accident before deciding it was most likely that the pathogen spread from bats to humans via another animal. In a briefing to member countries on Tuesday, he said he was 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. The WHO chief has consistently said all lines of inquiry are open, but Tuesday’s comments mark the first time he’s speculated about the possibility of an accidental escape.

Afterwards, a group of more than a dozen nations 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.”

On Wednesday, China dismissed the criticism as not “serious or responsible”.

“They want to spread rumors and push their hidden political agenda,” said Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson​ Hua Chunying at a briefing in Beijing. “The experts have said they went to places they wanted to, and they met with people they wanted to.”

Four-week trip

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 criticised 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 US 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 US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention during the first year of the pandemic.

‘No stone’

“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 organised jointly by the WHO and China.

Peter Ben Embarek, co-leader of the trip, said at a media 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 did not 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.”

Outside China

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.”

The statement critical of the mission was released by the governments of the US, Australia, Canada, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Israel, Japan, Latvia, Lithuania, Norway, the Republic of Korea, Slovenia, and the UK.


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