‘All Hypotheses Open’ Says WHO Director General Of SARS-CoV2 Origins Investigation
The Wuhan Institute of Virology, guarded by police officers during the visit of the WHO team. WHO team members say they have discounted a lab escape theory – other critics say their conclusions are too hasty.  WHO’s Director General says all hypotheses remain on the table.

All four original chains of query remain on the table in terms of the origins of the SARS-CoV2 virus, said WHO Director General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus at a press briefing on Monday. 

But his comments appear to contradict the leaked conclusions of the investigation which point towards a natural cause for the virus emergence among farmed wildlife. 

This is in contrast to the hypothesis that the virus had escaped from the Wuhan Virology Institute, an international centre for the study of bat coronaviruses – which critics have asserted should remain on the table until China provides more data.  

“All hypotheses are open, from what I read from the report, so I would suggest that… we wait until the international experts… face the public tomorrow,” said Tedros, speaking after a meeting with Gerd Müller, the German Minister for Development Cooperation.  

“The report of course was sent… under embargo to member states based on their request, because we will have a mission briefing tomorrow with member states,” Dr Tedros added, noting that a media briefing will follow Tuesday’s briefing to member states. 

“We will read the report and discuss, digest its content and next steps with member states. But as I have said all hypotheses are on the table and warrant complete and further studies, from what I have seen so far,” Tedros added.

The long-awaited report, due to be released Tuesday, is the fruit of an investigation by a group of international experts into the origins of the SARS-CoV2 virus, which included a mission to China by the 17 international team members in late January and early February – working in tandem with a 17-member Chinese team, designated by the government. 

WHO Team Members Have Different View

Wholesale markets in China traditionally sell wild animals, captured or bred, for food consumption, and which provide a breeding ground for viruses and virus variants dangerous to humans.

However, a leading member of the WHO investigative team said on Monday that the report pointed to the Chinese wildlife trade as the most likely source of the virus leap to humans – discounting a lab biosafety accident as a factor that is “extremely unlikely” according to the WHO report.  

“What we found is evidence of a way the virus could have emerged from rural China into a big city like Wuhan… at the end of the report, both the China team of experts & the WHO experts all felt this was the most likely pathway that the virus took,” said Peter Daszak, president of the EcoHealth Alliance, just ahead of the report’s formal presentation Tuesday before WHO member states. 

“One key recommendation… is to go to those farms & interview the owners, their relatives & test people to look for evidence on whether they were infected with Covid-19 earlier than the first known patients in Wuhan,” Daszak added. 

Large commercial farms that breed wildlife animals for human food consumption have been developed over the past years in remote Yunnan Province, near the Myanmmar border, with Chinese government support.  These same areas are home to horseshoe bats harbouring coronaviruses that genetically most resemble the SARS-CoV2 virus. These farms also supply wild foods – in fresh and frozen – to markets like those in Wuhan city where clusters of the virus first appeared. 

Other Critics –  Its  Premature To Discount Lab Escape Theory 

But another international expert told Health Policy Watch that it is far too early to rule out the possibility that the virus might have escaped from the Wuhan Virology Institute, which has been studying bat coronaviruses for years. 

Richard H. Ebright, a professor at Rutgers University, underlined that the hypothesis of a biosafety accident – or lab escape – should still remain on the table because there is as of yet insufficient evidence to either prove or discount it as China had limited the investigative team’s access,

“Zoonotic spillover occurring at a wildlife farm is one of several plausible scenarios under the zoonotic spillover hypothesis,” said Ebright, a professor of chemical biology. “At this point in time, there is no secure basis to assign relative probabilities to the natural-accident hypothesis and the laboratory-accident hypothesis,” Ebright told Health Policy Watch, adding that:   

“All scientific data related to the genome sequence of SARS-CoV-2 and the epidemiology of COVID-19 are equally consistent with a natural-accident origin or a laboratory-accident origin.” 

Ebright was one of some 26 scientists who signed an open letter in early March calling for a new, and more independent, investigation into the virus origins. The letter by a group of international experts stated the WHO mandated team did not have access to sufficient original data either from the Virology Institute, the first Wuhan patient clusters, or wildlife sources to make an independent determination about the virus origins.  

Virus Likely Originated From A Horseshoe Bat – But From Where? 

Ebright said he agreed that a coronavirus originating in horseshoe bats is the most likely progenitor of the virus.  But how the virus made the leap into the human body is another question. 

“The genome sequence of the outbreak virus indicates that its progenitor was either the horseshoe-bat coronavirus RaTG13 (collected by Wuhan Institute of Virology in 2013 from a horseshoe-bat colony in a mine in Yunnan province in which miners had died from a SARS-like pneumonias in 2012; partly sequenced by Wuhan Institute of Virology in 2013-2016; fully sequenced by Wuhan Institute of Virology in 2018-2019; published by Wuhan Institute of Virology in 2020) – or a closely related bat coronavirus,” Ebright told Health Policy Watch.  

“Bat coronaviruses are present in nature in multiple parts of China. Therefore, the first human infection could have occurred as a natural accident, with a virus passing from a bat to a human, possibly through another animal. There is clear precedent for this: the first entry of the SARS virus into the human population occurred as a natural accident in a rural part of Guangdong province in 2002,” Ebright continued.

However, terms of the possibility the virus escaped from a laboratory, he also notes that: “Bat coronaviruses are collected and studied by laboratories in multiple parts of China – including the Wuhan Institute of Virology.  Therefore, the first human infection also could have occurred as a laboratory accident, with a virus accidentally infecting a field collection staffer, a field survey staffer, or a laboratory staffer, followed by transmission from the staffer to the public.  

“There also is clear precedent for this: the second, third, fourth, and fifth entries of the SARS virus into human populations occurred as a laboratory accident in Singapore in 2003, a laboratory accident in Taipei in 2003, and two separate laboratory accidents in Beijing in 2004.”

Some other WHO international team members have also complained bitterly that politics took precedence over science on key aspects of the mission, and that Chinese authorities won’t turn over critical patient data that would allow the team to ascertain the breadth of the virus circulation in December 2019, as well as exploring the circumstances around likely cases in Wuhan that occurred earlier. 

US also Expresses Concerns About Transparency Of Report 

On Sunday, US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken also said that the US has “real concerns about the methodology and process” of the report, including the fact that Chinese government experts “apparently helped write it”. Blinken was speaking on CNN’s State of the Union

This follows last Friday’s comments by White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki that the US was concerned about the international team’s lack of access to data needed to evaluate the various scenarios that have been considered, including direct infection by an original source, such as a bat; infection of humans by an intermediate wild animal source; infection by a semi- or frozen food source; or the escape of the virus from a laboratory. 

“We’ll have to take a look at it and make sure we have access to the underlying information, Psaki said in a White House press briefing, criticizing the “lack of transparency from the Chinese.”

Meanwhile, Anthony Fauci, the chief medical advisor to the Biden Administration, took more of a wait-and-see attitude. “What I would like to do is to first see the report,” Fauci told CBS’s Face the Nation. “You’re getting a lot of conjecture around what they did and what they were allowed to do or not.”  But he added, “If, in fact, obviously there was a lot of restrictions on the ability of the people who went there to really take a look, then I’m going to have some considerable concern about that.”

Possible China Bias an Issue Since Beginning  

WHO’s Peter Ben Embarek, third from right, at 9 February Wuhan press conference on origins of the COVID-19 virus.

The possible “China bias” of the report, drafted by 17 international expert team members together with 17 Chinese experts, has been an issue since the team concluded its work in Wuhan in early February.  

At a joint press conference on 9 February, China’s team leader attempted to promote the idea that the virus had been imported into Wuhan via frozen foods, something that the WHO team coordinator Peter Ben Embarek later dismissed as unlikely

However, Ben Embarek suggested that wild animals arriving in Wuhan, either alive or in semi-frozen form, may very well be the virus source, and that the WHO needed more information about possible infection chains coming from farmed wildlife sources.  

Ben Embarek also said that over a dozen SARS-CoV2 virus strains were circulating in Wuhan in December 2019.  “The virus was circulating widely in Wuhan in December, which is a new finding,” he said.

He has since admitted that the WHO-led international team was still seeking Chinese government permission to access some 200,000 samples from Wuhan’s blood donor bank, which, if tested for virus antigens, could shed far greater light on the true prevalence of the virus in that period. 

“There are about 200,000 samples available there that are now secured and could be used for a new set of studies,” Ben Embarek told CNN. “It would be fantastic if we could [work] with that.”  

However, Chinese authorities have resisted sharing that data, claiming that they are only allowed to be used for litigation purposes. Said Ben Embarek. “There is no mechanism to allow for routine studies with that kind of sample.”  

The WHO team members also did not visit or obtain samples from the wildlife farms where the virus may have emerged naturally.

Image Credits: @PeterDaszak, CNN, Peter Griffin/Public Domain Pictures, CGTN.

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