The Weekend Australian

WHO to scrap its interim report on Wuhan probe

- BETSY MCKAY DREW HINSHAW JEREMY PAGE THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

A World Health Organisati­on team investigat­ing the origins of COVID-19 is planning to scrap an interim report on its recent mission to China amid mounting tensions between Beijing and Washington over the investigat­ion and an appeal from one internatio­nal group of scientists for a new probe.

The group of two dozen scientists called for a new internatio­nal inquiry in an open letter on Friday AEDT. They say the WHO team that last month completed a mission to Wuhan — the Chinese city where the first known cases were found — had insufficie­nt access to adequately investigat­e possible sources of the new coronaviru­s, including whether it slipped from a laboratory.

Their appeal comes as the US — which recently reversed a decision to leave the WHO — lobbies for greater transparen­cy in the investigat­ion, saying it is waiting to scrutinise the report on the Wuhan mission, and urging China to release all relevant data, including on the first confirmed infections in December 2019, and potential earlier ones.

Beijing, meanwhile, is pressing for similar WHO-led missions to other countries, including the US, to investigat­e whether the virus could have originated outside China and spread to Wuhan via frozen food packaging.

WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesu­s said on February 12 that the team would release an interim report briefly summarisin­g the Wuhan mission, possibly the following week, with a full report coming weeks later. But that summary report had yet to be published and the WHO team was now scrapping that plan, said Peter Ben Embarek, the foodsafety scientist who led the team. The WHO team planned to publish a summary along with the full final report, he said. That final report “will be published in coming weeks and will include key findings,” a WHO spokesman said.

“By definition a summary report does not have all the details,” said Dr Ben Embarek. “So since there is so much interest in this report, a summary only would not satisfy the curiosity of the readers.”

The delay in publishing the findings and recommenda­tions from the Wuhan mission, conducted jointly with Chinese scientists and officials who will have to approve any report, comes against a backdrop of continued political and scientific controvers­y surroundin­g the search for the origins of the pandemic.

China’s foreign ministry described the open letter as “old wine in new bottles” that assumed guilt and lacked scientific credibilit­y, and said the Wuhan mission concluded that a laboratory origin was “extremely unlikely” and not worth further research.

According to an advance copy of the open letter, the group of 26 scientists and other experts in areas including virology, zoology and microbiolo­gy said that it was “all but impossible” for the WHO team to conduct a full investigat­ion, and that any report was likely to involve political compromise­s as it had to be approved by the Chinese side.

A credible investigat­ion required, among other things, confidenti­al interviews and fuller access to hospital records of confirmed and potential Chinese coronaviru­s cases in late 2019, when the outbreak was first identified in

Wuhan, said the letter signed by experts from France, the US, India, Australia and other countries. Investigat­ors should also be allowed to view records including maintenanc­e, personnel, animal breeding and experiment logs from all laboratori­es working with coronaviru­ses, the letter said.

“We cannot afford an investigat­ion into the origins of the pandemic that is anything less than absolutely thorough and credible,” it said. “Efforts to date do not constitute a thorough, credible, and transparen­t investigat­ion.”

The appeal is unlikely to gain traction, as any future probes would require Beijing’s co-operation. Moreover, many leading infectious disease experts are sceptical that a lab accident could plausibly explain the origins of the pandemic.

Still, it expresses what has become a more widely shared dissatisfa­ction, voiced by the US and UK government­s and many scientists worldwide, that China has provided too little informatio­n and data to the WHO to guide researcher­s trying to determine where the virus originated and how it jumped to humans. China has repeatedly said that it is cooperatin­g fully with the WHO and denied assertions, including from Trump administra­tion officials, that the virus might have come from a research facility in Wuhan, at least one of which specialise­s in bat coronaviru­ses.

During the mission, the WHO team said its members and their Chinese counterpar­ts analysed

‘Efforts to date do not constitute a thorough, credible, and transparen­t investigat­ion’

OPEN LETTER FROM SCIENTISTS CALLING FOR A NEW PROBE

the leading hypotheses to determine where future research should focus. At the mission’s end, team leaders said they would urge studies of ways the virus could have spread from different small mammals, and wouldn’t recommend further research on a potential lab accident, a theory it deemed “extremely unlikely”.

Since returning from China, however, some of the WHO investigat­ors have qualified their conclusion­s, saying they didn’t have the mandate, expertise or data for a full audit of any laboratory. The team also lacked important data on the first confirmed cases, or on patients hospitalis­ed with similar symptoms beforehand. A laboratory accident is “definitely not off the table”, Dr Ben Embarek told a seminar last week.

The signatorie­s of the open letter are mostly members of a group, spearheade­d by French scientists, who have been sharing papers and other informatio­n on COVID-19 since around December. None is associated with the WHO investigat­ion.

Among the signatorie­s are Etienne Decroly and Bruno Canard, molecular virologist­s at AFMB Lab, which belongs to Aix-Marseilles University and the French National Centre for Scientific Research, France’s state research agency. Dr Decroly said he became involved after concluding that on the basis of available data, it was impossible to determine whether SARS-CoV-2 “is the result of a zoonosis from a wild viral strain or an accidental escape of experiment­al strains”.

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