Debate Over WHO Investigation of SARS-CoV2 Virus Origins Heads For Showdown in World Health Assembly
The 74th World Health Assembly meeting virtually in Geneva – how will it shape the direction of the future investigation over the origins of SARS-CoV2?

The debate over the future direction of WHO’s investigation into the origins of SARS-CoV2 appeared to be heading for a showdown in the closing days of the World Health Assembly – following another sharp statement from the United States on the issue – this time directed squarely at WHO and WHA member states.

The terse statement posted by the United States Mission in Geneva said: “Phase 1 of the WHO-convened COVID-19 origins study was insufficient and inconclusive. We call for a timely, transparent, evidence-based, and expert-led Phase 2 study, including in the People’s Republic of China.

“It is critical that China provides independent experts full access to complete, original data and samples relevant to understanding the source of the virus and the early stages of the pandemic. We appreciate the WHO’s stated commitment to move forward with Phase 2 of the COVID-19 origins study, and look forward to an update from Director General Tedros,” the statement added.

The US statement came only a day after US President Joe Biden ordered the US science and intelligence community to “redouble efforts” into finding out how the SARS-CoV2 virus emerged.

Debate in the WHA will largely revolve around the diplomatically explosive fine print of a draft WHA resolution on, Strengthening WHO preparedness and response to health emergencies.

Explicit reference to an “investigation” of the virus origins was removed from the text during negotiations over the past month.  Meanwhile, language hedging countries’ obligations to adhere to international law was hedged with a reference to their adherence to “national laws” as well.

If WHO Doesn’t Move, US Can Investigate On Its Own

The WHO invstigative team visited the Wuhan Institute of Virology on 3 February during their mission to the city to investigate the origins of the SARS-CoV2 virus, but their report concluded that a biosafety incident at the laboratory studying coronaviruses was an unlikely explanation for the COVID-19 outbreak .

Observers predicted, however, that debate on the floor of the WHA would include ad-hoc efforts by member states to modify the current draft further.  And if those efforts don’t succeed, the United States is now positioned to take independent action, said some critics of the current process – who have become pessismistc of WHO’s ability to act.

“It has become apparent that opposition from China and Russia will block calls for an effective international investigation from within the WHA and the WHO,” said Richard H. Ebright, of Rutgers University, in a comment to Health Policy Watch.  “These developments at the international level have been unsurprising but, even so, have been disappointing.

“However, these developments at the international level have had the salutary effect of making it much more likely that the US White House and the US Congress will open investigations at the national level,” Ebright added. “Many investigative leads are available in US and would be accessible to a Congressional investigation with subpoena power.

Process is being “Poisoned by Politics” – WHO Says

Dr Mike Ryan, WHO Executive Director of Health Emergencies, at the World Health Assembly.

Speaking on Friday, Mike Ryan, the Executive Director of WHO’s Health Emergencies division, called upon member states not to politicize the science around the origins quest.

Speaking at a press conference, Ryan said “We continue to work with the international team in looking at the recommendations from the first commission we’ve engaged with, and with  a large number of member states to seek their inputs into the next phase of the studies that are needed.

“And I think this is important to restate that, WHO and our Member States when they made the resolution last, last May, (WHA 73.1), specifically referred to studies and missions, because it was clear that it was going to take time, and it was going to take multiple studies,… to fully elucidate the origins of the virus, if that were ever possible, given the difficulty historically, with being able to do that.”

As for the future direction of the WHO-convened origins investigation, involving an international panel of experts and a parallel panel of Chinese scientists, Ryan asserted that, this would be determined in consultation with WHO member states:

“We will be reaching out to member states in the way we normally would, in order to seek their guidance as to whether there’s further expertise available that could join with this international effort, especially in the next phase, where more specialist studies may be needed in order to further elucidate the origins of virus. 

“We would though, like for everyone out there to separate, if they can, the politics of this issue from the science.

“This whole process is being poisoned by politics. And if you expect scientists to do their work.

“If you expect scientists to collaborate and actually get the answers that you want, actually seek in a non-blame environment to find this, the origin of the virus, so we may all learn how to prevent this happening in future, we would ask that this be done in a de-politicised environment where science and health is the objective of this, and not blame and politics. Because quite frankly, over the last number of days, we’ve seen more and more and more discourse in the media with terribly little actual news or evidence or new material.

“And this is this is quite disturbing, quite frankly,” Ryan said. “Every country and every entity is free to pursue their own particular theories of origin. It’s a free world.

“WHO is a member state organisation, we seek to work with all of our member states to seek answers collectively. We do that within the framework of the mandate that we have as an organization. We do that in collaboration, by consensus.  That is the way our organisation works. The Director General has been clear.  All hypotheses for the origins of the virus remain on the table; further studies are going to be needed across the board to further elucidate those origins.  We believe we can make more progress, especially with the suport of our member states and the support of scientists working in a positive manner. 

“To do that, we need space, we need governments to work together and to create the space where this can be done successfully.  

“Putting WHO in a position, like it has been put in, is very unfair to the science we’re trying to carry out. And it puts us as an organisation, frankly, in an impossible position to deliver the answers that the world wants. So we would ask that we separate the science from the politics.”

“Toxic Mileu”

However, it appears that the battle between scientists – and not only politicians, is becoming more and more toxic.

Scientists who support a “natural origins” theory for the SARS-CoV2 virus – as well as those that lean toward the “lab escape” theory – both appear to have become locked in a cycle of increasingly bitter attack.  That is reflected in the heated exchanges taking place recently on social media – including insults and name-calling fired, back and forth.

Both have fundamentally legitimate points to address.  The critics of the WHO process point out that the possibility of a “lab escape” of the virus was never carefully considered – and the investigative teams lacked the skills to do so.  Those that believe the virus more likely emerged naturally, from infected bats to humans, either directly or via a third intermediary host, such as a wild animal sold in a traditional “wet market”, see the lab escape as a political foil and distraction from ecosystem drivers that are posing increased risks to food safety worldwide.  Those include the progressive destruction of wilderness areas, and incursions of people into those areas to hunt and capture wild animals for meat and traditional medicines – alongside a new industry of domesticated wildlife farms, at least in China.  Those factors, along with the continued popularity of live animal markets within modern, densely-populated Asian cities can easily breed new forms of zoonotic diseases that also easily leap to humans shopping for, or slaughtering the animal hosts.

Bats are a reservoir for cornaviruses that circulate in nature. Horseshoe bats found in southwestern China’s Yunnan province carry the viruses most similar to SARS-CoV2 – they also were the subject of intense study at the Wuhan Instiute of Virology.  But other scientists point to the wide prevalence of bat-born coronaviruses throughout China and Southeast Asia.

While the “lab escape theory proponents” claim that they just want the two theories to be considered on an even playing ground – they have fired bitterly at institutions such as EcoHealth – led by one of the key experts who participated in the WHO-led mission to China in late January. At the same time, scientists  who support more investigation of the lab escape theory have been accused of being regressive, and even racist in some of the social-media back and forth.

“What many don’t realize, the origins debate is one born out of an authoritarian-adjacent leader (Trump) seeking an external enemy for us to focus on. So, we are distracted from how badly he performed,” said one apparent critic of the lab escape camp on social media.

“More studies needed” is a constant refrain in science. But this debate over a lab-leak has become toxic and risky,” noted Nature reporter, Amy Maxmen, on Twitter.

Background of Pandemic Investigation

The recent White House push on the virus investigation marks the first time since Biden’s election that Washington has taken a direct lead on the thorny and geopolitically charged origins issue.  Although former US President Donald Trump had also launched an inquiry into the same questions – that quest was overshadowed by the hyperbole and politics around Trump’s overall approach to China and the WHO – leading many to dismiss the lab escape hypothesis as a pure conspiracy theory.

However, in recent months, as flaws in the WHO investigation became more apparent, even WHO Director General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus has acknowledged that the possibility that the virus could have escaped from the Wuhan Virology Institute needs another serious review.

Scientists calling for a fresh review have cited China’s stonewalling over the release of data on the initial phases of the outbreak in Wuhan, as well as the large body of coronavirus research and data bases that either were blocked or went missing in China after COVID-19 emerged.  They also cite earlier US intelligence reports of biosafety flaws at the Wuhan Virology Institute, and the disappearance of archives from laboratory itself on the coronaviruses carried by the horseshoe bats that it was studying – which closely resembled SARS-CoV2.

Meanwhile, other researchers point out that the horseshoe bats that were being studied in Wuhan, are not the only ones to carry SARS-like coronaviruses. There may be other variants harbored in nature that are even more similar to the virus that causes COVID-19, suggested a new paper published Friday on the pre-print server

In that paper, researchers mapped and note the “very wide geographical disperson of the bat viruses related to SARSCoV2 across China and into Southeast Asia” concluding that “there has been relatively recent geographic movement and co-circulation of these viruses’ ancestors, extending across their bat host ranges in China and Southeast Asia over the last 100 years or so.

“We confirm that a direct proximal ancestor to SARS-CoV-2 is yet to be sampled, since the closest relative shared a common ancestor with SARS-CoV-2 approximately 40 years ago.

“Our analysis highlights the need for more wildlife sampling to (i) pinpoint the exact origins of SARS-CoV-2’s animal progenitor, and (ii) survey the extent of the diversity in the related Sarbecoviruses’ phylogeny that present high risk for future spillover.”

Said in lay terms, the implication is clear – the trail back to the virus that caused SARS-CoV2 may not be a one-way street to a Wuhan laboratory – but rather hidden in a dense thicket of biological interacts and reactions extending over decades, and across South East Asia.





Image Credits: World Health Assembly, CNN, WHO, Shutterstock .

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