(p. A8) BEIJING—A World Health Organization 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 is calling in an open letter on Thursday [March 4,2021] for a new international inquiry. 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.
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WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said on Feb. 12  that the team would release an interim report briefly summarizing the Wuhan mission, possibly the following week, with a full report coming weeks later. But that summary report has yet to be published and the WHO team is now scrapping that plan, said Peter Ben Embarek, the food-safety scientist who led the team.
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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 U.S., 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,” the letter 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 cooperation. Moreover, many leading infectious-disease experts are skeptical 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 U.S. and U.K. governments and many scientists world-wide, 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.
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A laboratory accident is “definitely not off the table,” Dr. Ben Embarek told a seminar last week. Dr. Tedros said in February after the team’s trip that “all hypotheses remain open and require further analysis.”
The signatories of the open letter are mostly members of a broader group, spearheaded by French scientists, who have been sharing research papers and other information on Covid-19 since around December. None are associated with the WHO investigation.
Among the signatories are Etienne Decroly and Bruno Canard, molecular virologists at AFMB Lab, which belongs to Aix-Marseille 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.”
The letter was co-organized by Gilles Demaneuf, a French data scientist based in New Zealand, and Jamie Metzl, a U.S.-based senior fellow for the Atlantic Council and adviser to the WHO on human genome editing.
Prominent critics of the laboratory hypothesis have in recent weeks published new research on bat coronaviruses found in Southeast Asia and Japan that they say shows that SARS-CoV-2 most likely evolved naturally to infect humans.
Robert Garry, a virologist at the Tulane University School of Medicine who was involved in that research, said he and other colleagues had initially considered the possibility of a leak or accident from a laboratory, but ultimately deemed it “nearly impossible.”
The Biden administration hasn’t publicly repeated its predecessor’s specific assertions regarding Wuhan laboratories.
Signatories of the open letter say they don’t back any one hypothesis but think it is premature to exclude the possibility of a leak or accident at or connected with a research facility such as the Wuhan Institute of Virology, or WIV, which runs high-security laboratories and has conducted extensive research on bat coronaviruses.
WIV scientists deny the virus came from there, saying they neither stored nor worked on SARS-CoV-2 before the pandemic and none of their staff tested positive for the virus.
Signatories said investigators should look at several possible scenarios, including whether a laboratory employee became infected with a naturally evolving virus while sampling bats in the wild, during transport of infected animals, or during disposal of lab waste.
They also said investigators should probe whether SARS-CoV-2 could have stemmed from “gain-of-function” experiments, in which viruses found in the wild are genetically manipulated to see if they can become more infectious or deadly to humans.
For the full story, see:
(Note: ellipses, and bracketed dates, added.)
(Note: the online version of the story was updated March 5, 2021, and has the title “WHO Investigators to Scrap Plans for Interim Report on Probe of Covid-19 Origins.” The online edition says that the title in the print edition was “WHO Team Delays Release of Report on Virus’s Origin.” But my copy of the print edition had the title “WHO Delays Release of Virus Origin Report.”
The last 11 paragraphs quoted above appear in the online version, but not the print version, of the article.)
The open letter mentioned above, signed by 26 scientists from Australia, Austria, Belgium, France, Germany, India, New Zealand, Spain, the United Kingdom, and the United States, is:
Butler, Colin D., Bruno Canard, Henri Cap, Y. A. Chan, Jean-Michel Claverie, Fabien Colombo, Virginie Courtier, Francisco A. de Ribera, Etienne Decroly, Rodolphe de Maistre, Gilles Demaneuf, Richard H. Ebright, André Goffinet, François Graner, José Halloy, Milton Leitenberg, Filippa Lentzos, Rosemary McFarlane, Jamie Metzl, Dominique Morello, Nikolai Petrovsky, Steven Quay, Monali C. Rahalkar, Rossana Segreto, Günter Theißen, and Jacques van Helden. “Open Letter: Call for a Full and Unrestricted International Forensic Investigation into the Origins of Covid-19.” March 4, 2021.