Weekend Herald

WHO chief: Ruling out lab leak ‘premature’

China urged to co-operate with investigat­ion into coronaviru­s origin

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The head of the World Health Organisati­on acknowledg­ed it was premature to rule out a potential link between the Covid-19 pandemic and a laboratory leak, and he said yesterday he was asking China to be more transparen­t as scientists search for the origins of the coronaviru­s.

In a rare departure from his usual deference to powerful member countries, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesu­s said getting access to raw data had been a challenge for the internatio­nal team that travelled to China earlier this year to investigat­e the source of Covid-19.

The first human cases were identified in the Chinese city of Wuhan.

Tedros told reporters that the UN health agency based in Geneva is “asking actually China to be transparen­t, open and co-operate, especially on the informatio­n, raw data that we asked for at the early days of the pandemic”.

He said there had been a “premature push” to rule out the theory that the virus might have escaped from a Chinese government lab in Wuhan –

underminin­g WHO’s own report, which concluded that a laboratory leak was “extremely unlikely”.

“I was a lab technician myself, I’m an immunologi­st, and I have worked in the lab, and lab accidents happen,” Tedros said. “It’s common.”

In recent months, the idea that the pandemic started somehow in a laboratory – and perhaps involved an engineered virus – has gained traction, especially with President Joe Biden ordering a review of US intelligen­ce to assess the possibilit­y in May.

China has struck back aggressive­ly, arguing that attempts to link the origins of Covid-19 to a lab are politicall­y motivated. At WHO’s annual meeting of health ministers in the spring, China said that the future search for Covid-19’s origins should continue – in other countries.

Most scientists suspect that the coronaviru­s originated in bats, but the exact route by which it first jumped into people – via an intermedia­ry animal or in some other way – has not yet been determined.

It typically takes decades to narrow down the natural source of an animal virus like ebola or Sars.

Tedros said that “checking what happened, especially in our labs, is important” to nailing down if the pandemic had any laboratory links.

“We need informatio­n, direct informatio­n on what the situation of this lab was before and at the start of the pandemic,” the WHO chief said, adding that China’s co-operation was critical. “If we get full informatio­n, we can exclude [the lab connection].”

Throughout the pandemic, Tedros has repeatedly praised China for its speed and transparen­cy despite senior WHO officials internally griping about obfuscatio­n from their Chinese counterpar­ts.

Last year, The Associated Press found that WHO was frustrated by a lack of details from China during the early stages of the coronaviru­s’ spread and showed that China was clamping down on the hidden hunt for the pandemic’s origins.

Numerous public health experts have also called for an independen­t examinatio­n of Covid-19’s origins, arguing WHO does not have the political clout to conduct such a forensic analysis and that the UN agency has failed after more than a year to extract critical details from China.

Jamie Metzl, who has led a group of scientists calling for a broader origins investigat­ion, welcomed Tedros’ comments but said it was “deeply unfortunat­e and dangerous” that there were no current plans for a probe led by experts beyond the UN health agency, saying that China has repeatedly blocked requests for all relevant records and samples.

Georgetown University law professor Lawrence Gostin, an expert in public health law, said Tedros’ plea for Chinese co-operation shows WHO’s weakness.

“WHO has no powers or political heft to demand access to informatio­n critical for global health,” said Gostin, who also is director of a WHO Collaborat­ing Centre on Public Health Law and Human Rights.

Any WHO-led mission to China also requires government approval for all experts who travel to the country, as well as permission to visit field sites and final approval on any trip report.

Tedros’ appeal for transparen­cy was echoed by German Health Minister Jens Spahn, who urged Chinese officials to allow the investigat­ion to proceed.

“We do appreciate the cooperatio­n of the Chinese government so far for the first mission,” Spahn said. “But that’s not yet enough.”

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Tedros Ghebreyesu­s

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