Global Group of Scientists Calls For Fresh Investigation Into Origins of SARS-CoV2 Virus
The Wuhan Institute of Virology, guarded by police officers during the visit of the WHO team in February.

The WHO-convened international investigation into the origin of the SARS-CoV2 virus is too politically limited by China and lacks the mandate to yield fully independent conclusions about how the novel coronavirus emerged and infected humans, according to a group of prominent international scientists – who have called for a new, independent and “unrestricted” probe into the source of the virus that triggered a pandemic.

“The joint team did not have the mandate, the independence, or the necessary accesses to carry out a full and unrestricted investigation into all the relevant SARS-CoV-2 origin hypotheses – whether natural spillover or laboratory/research related incident,” stated an open letter published on Thursday.

The open letter signed by 26 scientists from France, the US, Australia, German, Austria and India, with expertise in virology, zoology, microbiology and global health policy, argued that it was “all but impossible” for the WHO-convened mission to fully examine all SARS-CoV2 origin hypotheses.

While the Chinese government on Friday disputed claims that it withheld information and delayed international responses to the pandemic, the scientists said that critical data had indeed been withheld. Moreover, statements made at a press conference after WHO´s mission concluded in Wuhan in mid-February, revealed the the limitations inherent to the current inquiry, in which 17 Chinese scientists must agree with the conclusions and findings of the international team of 17 experts in any final report.   

One expert, Richard H. Ebright, a professor of chemical biology at Rutgers University, went as far as to call the mission a “charade” with “no credibility, its members were willing–and, in at least one case, eager–participants in disinformation.¨

The WHO investigative team concluded its month-long expert mission in China in mid February, announcing in a press conference on 9 February that the most likely hypothesis is that the SARS-CoV2 virus originated from an animal intermediary that transmitted the virus from bats to humans.

But Peter Ben Embarek, convenor of the group, also said that the joint Chinese-international group had ruled out the hypotheses that the virus might have escaped from the Wuhan Virology Institute, an internationally known research center into coronaviruses. 

However, the signatories to Thursday’s letter said that those conclusions were made hastily, and based on inadequate information.  They said that the “zoonosis hypothesis…is only one of a number of possible SARS-CoV2 origins, alongside the research-related accident hypothesis” – and both require further investigation.

“The aim of the Open Letter was to highlight that the Joint WHO-China ‘global study’ was not an ‘investigation’. The joint WHO-China team did not have the mandate, the independence, or access to carry out a full and unrestricted investigation,” Dr. Filippa Lentzos, Senior Lecturer in Science & International Security at King’s College London, and a signatory of the letter, told Health Policy Watch

“An independent investigation is simply not feasible within WHO’s restricted mandate,” Lentzos added.

The criticism by the group of scientists came as WHO said that it would delay release of an interim summary statement on the mission to China. Instead, the joint WHO-China team will publish a full report in the week of March 15, said Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO Director General, in statements Friday to WHO member states and the media. 

Limitations of the Joint Investigation
The joint WHO-Chinese team of experts presenting the most likely hypotheses for the origins of SARS-CoV2 in Wuhan at the 9 February press conference wrapping up the international WHO expert mission.

According to the authors and signatories of the letter, the structural limitations of the mission compromise the scientific validity of the investigation. Those issues include a lack of transparency around the development of the team’s original Terms of Reference; the lack of access to raw case data and individuals who were early victims or responders in the initial outbreaks of coronavirus; an alleged biased selection of international experts; and the fact that a final report needs to have the consensus agreement of both the international and Chinese teams. Specifically:

  • The Terms of Reference of the joint study, which were decided upon in July, allowed for the Chinese experts to conduct the majority of the fieldwork. This resulted in the use of a format for the study that was chosen by the Chinese counterparts and limited the data that was available to the international members of the team.
  • The raw data, which includes lab records and early COVID-19 cases, was withheld from the international experts. They were instead provided with summaries of patient data and limited access to personnel for interviews. 

“They showed us a couple of examples, but that’s not the same as doing all of them, which is standard epidemiological investigation,” Dominic Dwyer, a medical virologist at New South Wales Health Pathology in Sydney, Australia and a member of the WHO team, told the Wall Street Journal in mid February. “So then, you know, the interpretation of that data becomes more limited from our point of view, although the other side might see it as being quite good.”

According to the letter, the gatekeeping of the raw data by the Chinese members of the joint team impacted the ability of the team to confidently evaluate all of the origin hypotheses – which include four possibilities: a) that an animal such as a bat, which was harbouring the virus directly infected the first individual(s); b) that the animal infected other intermediate hosts, which then infected people when those animals were slaughtered or sold in a Wuhan food market; c) that the infection was somehow imported on frozen or semi-frozen wildfoods arriving from elsewhere, or d) that the infection emerged as a result of biosafety incident at the virology lab – which is a centre for the research into coronaviruses.

Laboratory Origin Hypothesis Inadequately Studied – Experts Charge

The possible laboratory-related hypotheses – including infection at a sampling site of a lab employee, infection during transport of collected animals or samples, lab acquired infection, and lab-escape virus – were not adequately explored, said the scientists in the open letter. 

The scientists concluded that due to political pressures and the structure of the investigation saying, “the joint team did not have the mandate, the independence, or the necessary accesses to carry out a full and unrestricted investigation into all the relevant SARS-CoV-2 origin hypotheses – whether natural spillover or laboratory/research- related incident.”

While none of the findings from the mid-February China mission pointed to a lab accident, the WHO-led international team lacked the skills and capacity to examine the possibility of a lab incident since the focus of the experts was largely on public health and zoonosis, the experts stated. The WHO-led mission may have also avoided deeper investigation of the lab-based theories to avoid political upset with their Chinese hosts, they pointed out.

In addition, at least one of the WHO team members’ expressed doubts about the lab-related hypotheses even before the mission to China, and others suggested that the issue was outside of their realm of expertise.  

“The group wasn’t designed to go and do a forensic examination of lab practice,” one member of the WHO team, Dwyer, admitted in an interview with Nature in February. 

The WHO team arriving at the Wuhan Institute of Virology in February, one of the world’s largest sites for the research of coronaviruses.

Whatever the reasons, the possibility that the coronavirus infected humans as a result of a laboratory accident needs to be examined, alongside the theory that the chain of infection emerged from direct human contact with an infected animal, or with an intermediate host animal somewhere along the food chain.

“I believe both the natural spillover and lab leak origin theories need to be thoroughly examined. I am not saying it was a lab leak, but that it could have been, and that it is a serious possibility that needs to be investigated,” Dr. Lentzos said.

“At this point in time, 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 told Health Policy Watch.

However, according to Ebright, some circumstantial evidence could point to a laboratory-related accident as the origin of the virus outbreak.

Based on the genome sequencing of the outbreak virus, the closest relative was likely a horseshoe-bat coronavirus, he pointed out.

“Wuhan, China is tens of kilometers from the nearest known horseshoe-bat colony and the outbreak occurred during hibernation, meaning the bats would not have left their colonies. In addition, Wuhan is the site of the world’s largest research project on horseshoe-bat coronaviruses. The first human infection could have occurred as a laboratory accident, followed by transmission to the public.”

Guidelines for a Credible Investigation

A thorough and credible investigation will require a truly independent team of multidisciplinary experts with no national or partisan interests, the expert letter adds. The experts will need full access to all relevant sites, records, samples, personnel of interest, and raw data.

Access to incident reports, databases of pathogens and samples, lab experiment logs, and the Chinese Centers for Disease Control and Protection (CDC) case records are essential. 

In addition, confidential interviews with early patients and past and present personnel working at the related markets, hospitals, and labs will need to be conducted, the signatories state.

At least one senior member of the WHO-convened team said that the pursuit of such avenues could still take place in the context of the ongoing joint investigation.

“[This] is exactly the sort of follow up source-tracking that will be listed in the recommendations of the Joint WHO-China Mission report,” Dr. Peter Daszak told the Telegraph in response to the letter. 

“I urge the global community to wait until that report is published, read the recommendations, and assess next steps from a scientific viewpoint, not a geopolitical one,” he added.

However, in another interview, with the New York Times. Daszak charged that the demands to further investigate a lab origin for the SARS-CoV2 virus is a position “supported by political agendas.” 

Unfounded theories that the virus either escaped from, or was created in, the Wuhan Institute of Virology circulated widely earlier on in the pandemic. Former US President Donald Trump was among those pushing these theories, claiming that he had seen evidence that gave him a “high degree of confidence that the Wuhan Institute of Virology was the origin of this virus.”

Calls for New International Inquiry

The 26 experts that authored and signed the open letter concluded by referring to the WHO joint investigation as “opaque and restrictive” and calling for a new independent investigation into the origins of the virus.

“Because we believe the joint team process and efforts to date do not constitute a thorough, credible, and transparent investigation, we call on the international community to put in place a structure and process that does,” said the open letter.

“From my perspective, one possibility for a credible investigation is a UN General Assembly mandate to the UN Secretary General to carry out an investigation,” said Dr. Lentzos. 

However, the call for a new inquiry is unlikely to result in a future probe, given the number of hurdles WHO faced in organising the origin mission, including a last minute foul-up over visas. Cooperation from Beijing would be required to arrange a new inquiry. 

Chinese and US Officials Disagree Over Investigation

At a press conference in Beijing on Friday, Wang Wenbin, China’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson, said its government was cooperating fully with WHO on the joint origin-tracing research.

The Chinese government has done a lot of administrative, technical, logistic and supporting work. In support of this joint research, the Chinese side, at the request of the WHO and the international team, arranged top Chinese experts in relevant fields to take part, and assembled a large number of technical personnel to support the joint mission in collecting data and documents,” said Wang Wenbin.

Wang Wenbin, China’s Foreign Ministry Spokesperson, at a press conference on Friday.

The experts on the mission made their own decisions independently as to where they would like to visit, who they would like to talk to and what they would like to talk about as the field work proceeded. The report is also drafted by the mission independently,” he added. 

Despite the change of administration in Washington, US officials have maintained their dissatisfaction with China’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic and continue to express worries about the independence of the WHO joint mission. 

“We have deep concerns about the way in which the early findings of the COVID-19 investigation were communicated, and questions about the underlying process used to reach them,” said Ned Price, spokesperson for the US State Department, at a press briefing on Thursday. 

“It’s imperative that this report be independent, with expert findings free from intervention or alteration by Chinese Government authorities…We’ve continued to call upon China to make available its data from the earliest days of the outbreak,” Price said.

Summary Report and Full Report To Be Released Simultaneously 

The findings of the joint mission will be released in two weeks, announced WHO officials at the biweekly press briefing on Friday. The summary report, which was expected to be released first, will be delayed for publication until the final report is ready.

“The team is working on its full report as well as an accompanying summary report, which we understand will be issued simultaneously in a couple of weeks,” Tarik Jasarevic, WHO spokesperson, told Health Policy Watch

“By definition a summary report does not have all the details,” Dr. Peter Ben Embarek, a food safety expert at WHO and lead of the investigative team, told the Wall Street Journal. “So since there [is] so much interest in this report, a summary only would not satisfy the curiosity of the readers.”

WHO officials at the press conference on Friday made assurances that the report would prioritize transparency and demonstrate progress in the process of discovering the origins of the SARS-CoV2 virus and collaborating with countries. 

“We are waiting for the report. I am waiting for the report like you. Everything that happened during the trip will be presented transparently,” said Dr. Tedros. “I assure you that there will be transparency and we [will] see exactly what happened. What were the gains, what were the challenges, and then, where do we take it from here.”

Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO Director General.

“If others want to call for anything else they’re perfectly within their rights to do so,” said Dr. Mike Ryan, WHO Executive Director of the Health Emergencies Programme, addressing the open letter. “I would suggest that people, maybe just take a few days to wait and examine what the outcomes are…There will certainly need to be more work…[It is] going to take time and potentially multiple missions to fully understand this.”

“This is a process of discovery. And it is a process of working in new ways, with all countries,” Ryan added.

Image Credits: CNN, WHO, Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People's Republic of China.

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