Calls for new Covid-19 origins inquiry amid concerns China withheld data from WHO-led team

Sarah Newey
·4-min read
International experts on a WHO-convened mission to study the origins of Covid-19 in Wuha and their Chinese counterparts, at a press conference in February - AP Photo/Ng Han Guan
International experts on a WHO-convened mission to study the origins of Covid-19 in Wuha and their Chinese counterparts, at a press conference in February - AP Photo/Ng Han Guan

More than two dozen scientists have called for a new investigation into the origins of the coronavirus pandemic, amid concerns it was “all but impossible” for a World Health Organization-led team to operate free of political influence.

In an open letter, published on Thursday, a group of 26 experts claimed the probe did not “constitute a thorough, credible and transparent investigation”.

“We believe it essential that all hypotheses about the origins of the pandemic be thoroughly examined and full access to all necessary resources be provided without regard to political or other sensitivities,” the letter added.

During a highly anticipated trip earlier this year, a WHO-convened team spent four weeks in Wuhan - where the first Covid-19 cases were detected in late 2019 - to investigate how the virus first emerged.

The scientists suggested that while “all hypotheses remain open”, it is highly unlikely that the virus emerged as a leak from a laboratory. Instead, they said, Sars-Cov-2 most likely jumped from bats to humans via an as-yet-unknown intermediary host.

While most experts expected inconclusive findings - establishing the origins of diseases usually takes years, if not decades - the lack of a “smoking gun” has only heightened geopolitical squabbles and already intense scrutiny around the probe.

Spillover: the origins of Covid-19 and why the next pandemic may already have started
Spillover: the origins of Covid-19 and why the next pandemic may already have started

The Chinese government, which has called for similar WHO-led missions to other countries, used the mission to push the theory that the virus spread to Wuhan via frozen food packaging.

Meanwhile the United States has implied it will independently verify initial conclusions, and the UK has expressed concern that the international scientists were not given full access to required data.

Defenders of the trip say its aim was never to “investigate” and catch out China. Instead, it was to study and better understand the origins of the outbreak through “scientific and collaborative field missions”.

Speaking at a press conference earlier this month, Dr Peter Ben Embarek, WHO's food safety and animal disease specialist and chairman of the investigation team, said the team had met this aim.

“Did we change dramatically the picture we had beforehand? I don’t think so. Did we improve our understanding and add details to that story? Absolutely.”

The WHO-led team was initially expected to publish a summary report within weeks of leaving China, but The Telegraph understands this has now been pushed back.

Since the investigative team left Wuhan, they and their counterparts in China have been jointly editing and finalising a draft full report - which looks set to be published alongside the summary within the next two to three weeks.

“The rationale is straightforward - everything that would be in the summary report has already been discussed with the press and published in the media,” Dr Peter Daszak, an ecologist and member of the WHO-led team, told The Telegraph.

Peter Daszak (L) with Peter Ben Embarek (R), the head of the WHO mission in China, outside their hotel in Wuhan last month - ALEX PLAVEVSKI/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock 
Peter Daszak (L) with Peter Ben Embarek (R), the head of the WHO mission in China, outside their hotel in Wuhan last month - ALEX PLAVEVSKI/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

“What’s needed now is to release the full report, with the supporting data, so that the world can see the evidence that the WHO team was presented by China during the mission, and read our recommendations for next steps,” he added.

But, in the open letter criticising the trip, a group of experts from countries including France, the US and Australia criticised the mission’s scope and warned that the WHO “had to rely on information the Chinese authorities chose to share with them”.

“The joint WHO-China team had neither the mandate, independence nor the access necessary to conduct a full and unrestricted investigation,” Dr Etienne Decroly, a letter signatory and molecular virologist at Aix-Marseille University in France, told The Telegraph.

“Elucidating the origins of Sars-Cov-2 is crucial to reduce the risk of future pandemics… Our open letter sets out a possible framework for a full and unrestricted investigation.”

Others, however, have suggested that any new inquiry is unlikely given the difficulties gaining access to China - the WHO mission, for example, was delayed after members experienced “visa issues”.

In response to the letter Dr Daszak said the origins of pandemics cannot be subjected to a “forensic enquiry” but instead “require intense scientific research whereby countries cooperate and collaborate.”

“[This] is exactly the sort of follow up source-tracking that will be listed in the recommendations of the Joint WHO-China Mission report,” he added.

“I urge the global community to wait until that report is published, read the recommendations, and assess next steps from a scientific viewpoint, not a geopolitical one.”

A spokesman for the UK government said the government was supporting WHO's investigation.

“The recent field mission to Wuhan was an important early step in the investigation. We will look closely at the mission’s report when it is published.”

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