14 countries voice concern over independence of WHO's COVID-19 study

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Some of the members of a WHO research team investigating the origins of the coronavirus at a news conference in Wuhan, China. Photo by: Aly Song / Reuters

Following the publication of a long-anticipated World Health Organization study into the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic, 14 countries issued a statement Tuesday raising concerns over its independence, arguing it was “significantly delayed and lacked access to complete, original data and samples.”

The study examined questions such as whether the coronavirus originated in the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market in Wuhan, China. It also investigated the types of animal hosts that could have carried the virus, studied whether the virus entered Wuhan within frozen food, and looked into the theory that the virus had been leaked from a Wuhan Institute of Virology laboratory. It also examined whether or not the virus had existed in humans before December 2019.

“Scientific missions like these should be able to do their work under conditions that produce independent and objective recommendations and findings,” the countries’ statement read. “We share these concerns not only for the benefit of learning all we can about the origins of this pandemic, but also to lay a pathway to a timely, transparent, evidence-based process for the next phase of this study as well as for the next health crises.”

It was signed by Australia, Canada, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Israel, Japan, Latvia, Lithuania, Norway, South Korea, Slovenia, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

The study, conducted by 17 international scientists and 17 Chinese scientists, was marred by delays. The World Health Assembly asked WHO to conduct an independent inquiry into the virus’s origins in May. A two-person team then went to China in July to lay the groundwork for a WHO-led international mission. But it took months before the team was allowed into the country. The team didn’t enter China until Jan. 14 and then underwent two weeks of quarantine.

The study was short — the trip was 28 days, with only 14 days spent working with the teams on the ground — said Dr. Thea Fisher, one of the researchers, during a press conference Tuesday.

It was also inconclusive. But it did provide probabilities, including that a laboratory leak of the virus was “extremely unlikely,” whereas it was “very likely” the virus existed in a bat and was then passed through an intermediary host animal before being transmitted to humans.

Researchers at the press conference said that they have scientific leads to pursue in the study’s next phases but that it’s unclear when they will have a concrete idea of the origins of the pandemic, emphasizing that these types of studies always take time.

But there are cautionary warnings from U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration, as well as from governments of other nations, around ensuring that the researchers gain more independence moving forward.

“We’ve got real concerns about the methodology and the process that went into that report, including the fact that the government in Beijing apparently helped to write it,” U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in an interview with CNN on Sunday.

Researchers with the mission denied that the integrity of their work was clouded by political influence.

Wuhan COVID-19 virus lab leak 'extremely unlikely': WHO mission head

Several hypotheses about the origins of the coronavirus remain, but that it was leaked from a laboratory is all but ruled out, according to a WHO international mission of experts investigating in Wuhan, China.

“Of course, nobody wants to have an origin in their backyards, but again we are following the science, we are following the leads, we are going step by step,” said Peter Ben Embarek, who co-led the team of experts.

Embarek said the team had access to “incredible” amounts of data. This included thousands of data points in areas such as respiratory surveillance, mortality, and early reported cases of the disease.

Limited access to data is not uncommon on these kinds of scientific missions, he said, adding that privacy laws and other restrictions can prevent the release of raw data to outsiders, especially when it is intended to leave a country.

“We’ve done many studies in the past, and we always face the same challenges: How much and how can we share critical data with outsiders?” Embarek said. Some of the large data sets were also complicated in that they were generated by hundreds of health care centers and thousands of medical professionals.

“Where we did not have full access to all of the raw data we wanted, that has been put as a recommendation for future studies,” he said.

About the author

  • Sara Jerving

    Sara Jerving is a global health reporter based in Nairobi. Her work has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, Vice News, and Bloomberg News, among others. Sara holds a master's degree from Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism where she was a Lorana Sullivan fellow. She was a finalist for the Livingston Award for Young Journalists in 2018, part of a Vice News Tonight on HBO team that received an Emmy nomination in 2018 and received the Philip Greer Memorial Award from Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism in 2014. She has reported from over a dozen countries.