Stamford Advocate

WHO team: Search for COVID origins stalled


LONDON — The internatio­nal scientists dispatched to China by the World Health Organizati­on to find out where the coronaviru­s came from said Wednesday the search has stalled and warned that the window of opportunit­y for solving the mystery is “closing fast.”

Meanwhile, a U.S. intelligen­ce review ordered up by President Joe Biden proved inconclusi­ve about the virus’s origin, including whether it jumped from an animal to a human or escaped from a Chinese lab, The Washington Post reported Wednesday.

In a commentary published in the journal Nature, the WHOrecruit­ed experts said the origins investigat­ion is at “a critical juncture” requiring urgent collaborat­ion but has instead come to a standstill. They noted that Chinese officials are still reluctant to share some raw data, citing concerns over patient confidenti­ality.

Earlier this year, WHO sent a team of experts to Wuhan, where the first human COVID-19 cases were detected in December 2019, to probe what might have triggered the pandemic now blamed for nearly 4.5 million deaths worldwide, with more than 10,000 people a day succumbing despite more than 5 billion doses of vaccine administer­ed.

In their analysis, published in March, the WHO team concluded the virus probably jumped to humans from animals, and they described the possibilit­y of a laboratory leak as “extremely unlikely.”

But the WHO experts said their report was intended only as a first step and added, “The window of opportunit­y for conducting this crucial inquiry is closing fast: any delay will render some of the studies biological­ly impossible.”

For example, they said, “Antibodies wane, so collecting further samples and testing people who might have been exposed before December 2019 will yield diminishin­g returns.“

China said Wednesday that officials should “concentrat­e on other possible avenues that may help trace the origin” of COVID-19 and suggested studies should be pursued in other countries.

Fu Cong, a director-general in China’s Foreign Ministry, agreed it is a “pity” the search for COVID-19’s origins has stalled but said it wasn’t China’s fault. “China has always supported and will continue to participat­e in the science-based origin tracing efforts,” he said.

He accused the U.S. of “hyping the lab leak theory” and trying to shift the blame onto China, and implied the coronaviru­s might be linked to highlevel American research labs, suggesting the United States invite WHO to investigat­e some of its installati­ons.

Marion Koopmans and her WHO-recruited colleagues listed a number of priorities for further research, including conducting wider antibody surveys that might identify places where COVID-19 was spreading undetected, both in China and beyond, testing wild bats and farm-raised animals as potential reservoirs of the virus, and investigat­ing new leads.

Some other scientists fear the best opportunit­ies to collect samples might have been missed during the first few weeks after some of the earliest human cases appeared linked to a Wuhan seafood market.

The search for COVID-19’s origins has become a bitter source of dispute between the U.S. and China, with increasing numbers of American experts calling for the two Wuhan laboratori­es close to the seafood market to be investigat­ed, something China has flatly rejected and branded “scapegoati­ng.”

Biden in May ordered a 90day review by U.S. intelligen­ce agencies of both the animal-tohuman hypothesis and the lab leak theory. In July, even WHO’s Director-General Tedros Adhanom Gheybreyes­us said it was premature to have rejected the lab theory, adding that research accidents are common.

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