With virus origins still obscure, WHO and critics look to next steps
The joint international and Chinese mission organized by the World Health Organization on the origins of COVID released its report last week suggesting that for almost every topic it covered, more study was needed. What kind of study and who will do it is the question.
The report suggested pursuing multiple lines of inquiry, focused on the likely origin of the coronavirus in bats. It concluded that the most likely route to humans was through an intermediate animal, perhaps at a wildlife farm. Among future efforts could be surveys of blood banks to look for cases that could have appeared before December 2019 and tracking down potential animal sources of the virus in wildlife farms, the team proposed.
Critics of the report have sought more consideration of the possibility that a laboratory incident in Wuhan could have led to the first human infection. A loosely organized group of scientists and others who have been meeting virtually to discuss the possibility of a lab leak released an open letter this week, detailing several ways to conduct a thorough investigation. It called for further action, arguing that “critical records and biological samples that could provide essential insights into pandemic origins remain inaccessible.”
Much of the letter echoes an earlier release from the same group detailing what it saw as the failures of the WHO mission. This second letter is more specific in the kind of future investigations it proposes.
The group is seeking a new inquiry that would include biosecurity and biosafety experts, one that could involve the WHO or a separate multination effort to set up a different process to explore the beginnings of the pandemic and its origins in China.
Jamie Metzl — an author; senior fellow of the Atlantic Council, an international policy think tank; and signer of the scientists’ letter — said the renewed calls for a more thorough investigation reflected the need for greater monitoring of and restrictions on what viruses can be studied in labs around the world.
“This is not about ganging up on China,” Metzl said.
Metzl’s group was among those disappointed by the report issued last week, as it dismissed out of hand the possibility of a leak from the Wuhan Institute of Virology, calling it extremely unlikely.
The head of the WHO, Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, said later that the mission’s consideration of a possible lab leak was not “extensive enough.”
He continued, “Although the team has concluded that a laboratory leak is the least likely hypothesis, this requires further investigation, potentially with additional missions involving specialist experts, which I am ready to deploy.”
From the start, the task of the mission was never to investigate security or procedures at the Wuhan lab, where a great deal of research has been done on bat coronaviruses in recent years, or at any other labs in China.
What the member nations of the WHO authorized was a collaborative scientific effort by a group of international experts and their Chinese counterparts to study the origins of the pandemic.
The team of international scientists had no power or mandate to act independently of their Chinese colleagues. As the member nations dictated, every word in the report had to be approved by both the Chinese and the international group. They had 28 days in China, two weeks of which were in quarantine in a hotel.
The result, which includes an extensive review of existing scientific literature, marshals evidence in favor of the mainstream understanding of the virus’s origins, which is that a bat coronavirus most likely passed it to another animal and then to humans. This is what happened with the earlier coronavirus epidemics of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS).
Similar viruses have been found in bats and pangolins, although not close enough to have themselves spilled over into humans. The suspicion of a lab leak is built on the notion that labs in China do collect and study these viruses and that the Chinese scientists are lying about the research they do or are unaware of what goes on in their institutions.
Shi Zhengli, director of the Wuhan Institute of Virology, and other internationally known Chinese scientists have said that SARS-CoV-2 was not present in any Chinese labs, nor was any virus close enough to it to make a leap to people.
Some experts who did not sign either open letter criticizing the WHO think a different kind of investigation is needed.
Dr. Daniel Lucey, an infectious disease expert at Georgetown University, said he thought on the basis of the genetics of the virus and the many established precedents of disease spillovers from animals to people that the virus originated in nature. But he also said he thought it was possible that it might have been present in a lab in Wuhan and escaped to start the pandemic, perhaps because someone was accidentally infected.