WHO's COVID origin probe lacks credibility, scientists warn

Sounding alarm on team's public dismissal of lab leak theory, experts cite investigators' "fixed views," lack of access.

Published: February 20, 2021 2:59pm

Updated: February 22, 2021 9:38am

Multiple scientists at major institutions around the world are sounding an alarm over what they say was an incomplete and unreliable investigation by the World Health Organization into the origins of the SARS-Cov-2 virus

The team, led by an international cohort of researchers, said last week that it was "extremely unlikely" that the virus escaped from the Wuhan Institute of Virology, an infectious disease laboratory that has for years conducted experiments with coronaviruses — some of it funded by the U.S. government.

The WIV is located just a few kilometers away from the Wuhan city "wet market" identified as the early epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic. A growing number of skeptics have cited the lab's well-documented research into the dangers that bat-borne coronaviruses posed to human beings as a likely source for the virus. But the WHO team concluded that theory should not be considered as an "avenue of future study." 

Yet multiple scientists who spoke to Just the News criticized the team's conclusion, arguing that the WHO has not been granted sufficient access to the Wuhan lab to determine if the coronavirus emerged during a lab accident in the last few months of 2019. 

'We may never know the origins of this virus'

Rosanna Segreto, a bioengineer at the University of Innsbruck, said via email that it is "for sure more likely that SARS2 leaked from a lab than jumped from a natural host."

Segreto pointed to preliminary research in which she has participated that argues that "several characteristics of SARS-CoV-2 taken together are not easily explained by a natural zoonotic origin hypothesis," among which are "a low rate of evolution in the early phase of transmission; the lack of evidence of recombination events," and "a novel furin cleavage site insert."

Segreto further noted that, as WHO executive director of the World Health Organization's Health Emergencies Programme Mike Ryan recently put it, the health organization "does not possess the mandate to enter uninvited into any nation state and must show due diplomatic respect to the process of engaging with governments."

The Who team's COVID probe, Ryan said, was a "a collaborative process of discovery between scientists" rather than a pure investigation.

"Basically," Segreto said, "my interpretation is that what they discovered is what they were allowed to discover."

Colin Butler, an honorary professor at Australian National University's National Centre For Epidemiology And Population Health, agreed that the lab-leak theory is "highly plausible, at least as likely as it being from a bat via an intermediary animal, either wild or farmed."

Butler pointed to a blog post he wrote earlier this month in which he argued that "convincing evidence to refute the laboratory leak hypothesis would require the release of detailed laboratory records, perhaps going back for a decade or more."

"Were the WIV transparent, such records and answers would not require a visit to China, and they would long ago have been provided," he wrote. 

Butler also cited the potential conflict of interest posed by Peter Daszak, the director of a New York-based science nonprofit who funneled hundreds of thousands of dollars of federal money to the Wuhan lab in the years leading up to the pandemic.

"In my opinion, Dr. Daszak should have recused himself from being part of each of these investigative efforts," Butler said. 

Richard Ebright, the lab director at Rutgers University's Waskman Institute of Microbiology, also echoed concerns about Daszak's involvement in the probe. "A credible investigation would require a credible team," he said.

Ebright also argued that "a credible investigation would require confidential interviews of personnel and inspection of records, samples, and facilities at the Wuhan laboratories that collected, identified, and worked with SARS-related bat coronaviruses."  

"The WHO mission did none of this," Ebright claimed. arguing that the team "spent less than a day at WIV, rather than the several weeks to several months that would be required for the critical elements listed."

Ebright noted that the team's "terms of reference" for its China investigation "did not even acknowledge the possibility of a laboratory origin of the virus and did not even mention the Wuhan Institute of Virology" or other Wuhan health authorities.

Rasmus Nielsen, an integrative biology professor at the University of California, Berkeley, told Just the News that scientists "have very little evidence at the moment to determine the exact path by which the virus transferred to humans and that we should keep an open mind about it."  

"Even if the WIV lab appears very secure, as stated by the WHO team, it is premature to conclude that the virus couldn't have escaped from the lab in one way or another," he said, while acknowledging that "we similarly cannot exclude other possible models of transfer."  

"I think it is important to keep an open mind and see where the data leads us," Nielsen said, noting that he "would like to withhold judgement on the WHO team's efforts until we see the final report." (The WHO did not respond to queries this week regarding the timeline of that report's release.)

Raina MacIntyre, a professor of global biosecurity at the University of New South Wales Sydney, argued that "in epidemic investigation it is important to study outlier data, and not to dismiss outliers that do not fit our beliefs."

"We already knew the bat which carries the closest relative [of SARS-Cov-2] is not in Hubei province, but in Yunnan, which is thousands of miles away," she said. "A similar virus caused severe pneumonia in miners in that area in 2012, and the Wuhan Institute of Virology had samples of that virus."

Like her fellow scientists, MacIntyre echoed concerns about Daszak's role in the probe, arguing that his presence indicated there were "some fixed views within the team" prior to its investigations.

She pointed to a February 2020 statement from several scientists, Daszak among them, condemning what the authors called "conspiracy theories suggesting that COVID-19 does not have a natural origin."

"Conspiracy theories do nothing but create fear, rumours, and prejudice that jeopardise our global collaboration in the fight against this virus," they wrote, adding: "We want you, the science and health professionals of China, to know that we stand with you in your fight against this virus."

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