SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA – A joint report by the World Health Organization and China this week concluded it is “extremely unlikely” that COVID-19 escaped from a Chinese laboratory, despite the theory receiving renewed attention following the comments of a former top U.S. health official.
The long-awaited WHO report released Tuesday said the lab leak theory was the least likely of four scenarios considered by a team of international experts who traveled to Wuhan, China earlier this year to investigate the origin of the coronavirus. The researchers determined that the virus most likely jumped from bats to humans, probably via a third animal that remains unidentified.
That conclusion stands in contrast to the comments of Robert Redfield, who headed the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention under President Donald Trump. Redfield told CNN last week he believes COVID-19 emerged from a Wuhan lab, though he stressed it was “only an opinion.”
Critics — most prominently senior members of the Trump administration but also others — suggest a lab accident at the Wuhan Institute of Virology may have infected an employee, who then spread the virus to the public.
No evidence of such an accident has been presented. But the lab leak theory persists, in part because of the absence of a definitive explanation for the emergence of a pandemic that has killed nearly 3 million people worldwide.
Redfield’s comments, along with Sunday’s episode of the 60 Minutes television newsmagazine, sparked fresh debate over whether the WHO team should have spent more time investigating the lab, located just a handful of kilometers from the site of the first reported coronavirus outbreak.
The WHO team spent only about three hours at the institute, which studies bat coronaviruses. The team had limited access to records, samples, and employees, thanks to restrictions imposed by China. Instead, WHO researchers focused on a Wuhan market that sold wild and other animals, which the report says is the likeliest source of the coronavirus outbreak.
Georgetown University virologist Angela Rasmussen, who was on the WHO team, challenges the notion that the group should have focused more on the lab leak theory. That kind of investigation, she insists, was outside the expertise of the WHO team, which was composed of virus experts, epidemiologists, and animal science researchers.
“I mean, if the issue is getting to the bottom of a sequence of human events, then you need someone who investigates that,” Rasmussen tells VOA. “People who study viruses aren’t experienced at interviewing people or auditing freezer inventories or lab notebooks, or doing forensic investigations of any sort.”
China, which helped pick the members of the WHO team, has strongly denounced the lab leak hypothesis. Instead, Chinese officials have at times suggested looking outside the country for the origin of the pandemic.
But as he unveiled the report this week, WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus acknowledged the lab leak theory requires further investigation, “potentially with additional missions involving specialist experts, which I am ready to deploy.”
Tedros, who was accused by Trump of being too close to China, also expressed relatively blunt criticism of Beijing. He accused China of failing to provide the WHO team full access to raw data on the earliest known COVID-19 cases.
Rasmussen agrees with Tedros about the team’s lack of access. “I mean that’s clear,” she says. “I don’t think anyone has said they feel that they had unfettered access to everything they asked for. At the same time, there’s only so much you can do in two weeks.”
A follow-up mission seems unlikely anytime soon. China’s top representative on the WHO team, Liang Wannian, said Wednesday that additional probes would only happen “as needed” and are currently “premature.”
A tough diplomatic task
But those conversations belong in the diplomatic, not scientific, realm, insists Rasmussen. She says the WHO trip was always meant to establish the groundwork for further investigations, which must involve working with China.
“This will take years in any case,” she says. “And it will take a lot of diplomacy and high-level negotiation to get the kind of access that is needed.”
Rapidly deteriorating Chinese ties with the West will likely complicate that mission. Another barrier: anger in some member nations, including the United States, toward the WHO itself.
Trump, who called the WHO a “puppet” of China, pulled out of the world body in 2020. Biden rejoined the organization on his first day in office. Polls suggest U.S. voters now view the WHO along partisan lines.
That could complicate future global health cooperation, including on the coronavirus pandemic, says Matthew Kavanagh, director for Global Health Policy at the Georgetown University Law Center’s O’Neill Institute.
“We may not know the true source of the virus for years, if ever,” he says. “In the meantime, we need a stronger, more capable WHO, not one disabled by being caught in great power conflict.”