The United States and its allies are pinning their hopes on a second origins investigation in China on the WHO. The first team’s visit to Wuhan earlier this year essentially dismissed the lab leak hypothesis, calling it “extremely unlikely” while contending that a jump from animals to animals to humans was most likely. The WHO-China report was widely considered a failure, in part due to a lack of access to key data and Chinese influence over the investigation. Meeting minutes from discussions between lab scientists and the WHO-China team reveal lab leak concerns were referred to as “conspiracy theories.”
Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the director-general of the WHO, made remarks about the lab leak Thursday. Tedros said one challenge was China failing to provide access to the raw data from the early days of the outbreak, while another problem was the lab leak hypothesis was not being taken seriously enough.
“There was a premature push to, you know, especially reduce one of the options, like the lab theory,” Tedros said. “I was a lab technician myself — I’m an immunologist and have worked in the lab — and lab accidents happen. It’s common. I have seen it happening, and I have myself had errors. So it can happen. And checking what happened, especially in our labs, is important. And we need information direct information on what the situation of these labs was before and at the start of the pandemic. Then, if we get full information, we can exclude that. So one of the challenges, again, is, you know, a challenge of access and also transparency with regard to the hypothesis that are put.”
Peter Daszak, a longtime collaborator with the Wuhan Institute of Virology who steered hundreds of thousands of dollars in National Institutes of Health funding to the Chinese lab, was part of the first WHO-China team. Daszak helped organize a February 2020 Lancet letter condemning the lab leak hypothesis, despite his clear conflicts of interest.
The February 2020 Lancet letter dismissed the lab leak hypothesis as a conspiracy theory, and media outlets and government officials pointed to the letter to shut down the debate over COVID-19’s origins. The letter claimed scientists “overwhelmingly conclude that this coronavirus originated in wildlife” and denounced “misinformation” over its origins.
The NIH’s RePORTER website said the agency provided $15.2 million to Daszak’s EcoHealth Alliance over the years, with $3.74 million toward understanding bat coronavirus emergence. Daszak maintained a long working relationship with Wuhan’s “bat lady” Shi Zhengli, sending her at least $600,000 in NIH funding for bat coronavirus research.
Dr. Michael Ryan, the executive director of the WHO’s Health Emergencies Program, jumped in at the end of the Thursday press conference to heap praise on the WHO-China joint study team.
“I think it’s important to recognize that the phase one studies were carried out by a hugely dedicated, tremendously courageous, massively patient group of international scientists who came together at the invitation of the director-general and worked tirelessly under incredible pressure, incredible duress, and produced a high-quality report that represents the basis on which we can now move forward on in into phase two,” Ryan said. “It’s important also to recognize that they have built important relationships and trust with equally competent Chinese scientists and counterparts on the other side.”
Daszak again dismissed the lab leak hypothesis in March when he admitted he took Wuhan lab workers at their word and said he didn’t see evidence of a Chinese cover-up. He also criticized the Biden administration for skepticism of WHO’s findings and defended China on Communist Party-linked outlets.
Tedros was also asked Thursday if he believed China would be willing to allow further investigation of COVID-19’s origins.
“One of the challenges is … access to raw data, especially the data at the start of the pandemic — the raw data was not shared,” Tedros said. “And now, we have designed the second phase of the study, and we are asking, actually, China to be transparent, open, and cooperate — especially on the information, raw data that we asked for at the early days of the pandemic.”
A State Department fact sheet released in January contended Wuhan lab researchers “conducted experiments involving RaTG13, the bat coronavirus identified by the WIV in January 2020 as its closest sample to SARS-CoV-2 (96.2% similar)” and the lab “has a published record of conducting ‘gain-of-function’ research to engineer chimeric viruses.” The fact sheet also asserted the lab “engaged in classified research, including laboratory animal experiments, on behalf of the Chinese military” and that lab workers became sick with coronavirus-like symptoms in autumn 2019.
The U.S. intelligence community said at least one of its 18 agencies is leaning toward the lab leak hypothesis, and President Joe Biden ordered all of the spy agencies to “redouble” their investigative efforts in May.
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