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Origin of Covid-19: WHO takes U-turn, says Chinese lab leak theory needs study

After two years of the Covid pandemic, the World Health Organisation (WHO) has again decided to investigate the origin of the deadly infection (AP)Premium
After two years of the Covid pandemic, the World Health Organisation (WHO) has again decided to investigate the origin of the deadly infection (AP)

  • The WHO has that a deeper probe is required into whether a lab accident may be to blame for coronavirus
  • WHO's experts called for numerous studies to be done, including testing wild animals to find which species might host Covid-19

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After two years of the Covid pandemic, the World Health Organisation (WHO) has again decided to investigate the origin of the deadly infection. The UN agency, which had sent its team to China to study coronavirus origin last year, received a barrage of criticism for being biased towards the country and ignoring the facts during its probe.

The SARS-CoV-2 virus, which was first reported in the Chinese city, of Wuhan in 2019, has killed at least 6.3 million worldwide. While a lot of western countries have claimed that China should be blamed behind the orgin of this deadly virus, the WHO's team underplayed a lab-leak theory that put Chinese officials on the defensive.

In March 2021, WHO released a report about Covid-19's origins. The report concluded that the disease most likely jumped into humans from bats and that there was no evidence to suggest there was a connection to a laboratory.

However, the UN agency has now taken a surprising U-turn by saying that a deeper probe is required into whether a lab accident may be to blame for coronavirus.

WHO concluded last year that it was “extremely unlikely" Covid-19 might have spilled into humans in the city of Wuhan from a lab. Many scientists suspect the coronavirus jumped into people from bats, possibly via another animal.

Yet in a report released Thursday, WHO's expert group said “key pieces of data" to explain how the pandemic began were still missing. The scientists said the group would “remain open to any and all scientific evidence that becomes available in the future to allow for comprehensive testing of all reasonable hypotheses."

WHO's expert group said WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus sent two letters to senior Chinese government officials in February requesting information, including details about the earliest human cases of Covid-19 in the city of Wuhan. It's unclear whether the Chinese responded.

The experts said no studies were provided to WHO that assessed the possibility of Covid-19 resulting from a laboratory leak. They said their understanding of how the coronavirus emerged was limited by several factors, including that not all research presented by Chinese scientists has been published.

Jamie Metzl, who sits on an unrelated WHO advisory group, has suggested that the Group of Seven industrialized nations set up their own Covid origins probe, saying WHO lacks the political authority, expertise, and independence to conduct such a critical evaluation.

“Tragically, the Chinese government is still refusing to share essential raw data and will not allow the necessary, full audit of the Wuhan labs," he said. “Gaining access to this information is critical to both understanding how this pandemic began and preventing future pandemics."

WHO's expert scientists said numerous avenues of research were needed, including studies evaluating the role of wild animals, and environmental studies in places where the virus might have first spread, like the Huanan seafood market in Wuhan.

In its new report, WHO said the experts were given access to data that included unpublished blood samples from more than 40,000 people in Wuhan in 2019. The samples were tested for coronavirus antibodies. None were found, suggesting the virus was not spreading widely before it was first identified in late December of that year.

WHO's experts called for numerous studies to be done, including testing wild animals to find which species might host Covid-19. They also said the “cold chain" supply theory should be probed. China has previously advanced the idea that traces of COVID-19 on frozen packaging was causing outbreaks rather than any domestic source, a theory widely panned by outside scientists.

To investigate whether Covid might have been the result of a lab accident, WHO's experts said interviews should be conducted “with the staff in the laboratories tasked with managing and implementing biosafety and biosecurity."

China has called the suggestion that coronavirus began in a laboratory “ baseless " and countered that the virus originated in American facilities, which were also known to be researching coronaviruses in animals. The Chinese government has said it supports the search for the pandemic's origins, but that other country should be the focus.

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