Washington Call to ‘Redouble Efforts’ on SARS-CoV2 Virus Origins Investigation – But Will There be Action at WHA?
White House Deputy Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre discusses President Joe Biden’s order to the US intelligence community to take a fresh look at the origins of SARS-CoV2 with answers in 90 days.

Amidst fresh calls from US President Joe Biden ordering the science and intelligence community to come up with a more detailed account of how the SARS-CoV2 virus emerged – it’s unclear how much action the World Health Assembly will really see on the issue.

Language in the the final-agreed draft of a WHA resolution, Strengthening WHO preparedness and response to health emergencies, appears to have been muted to assuage objections by China and other allies- with the removal of any explicit reference to an “investigation” of the virus origins from the text.

The reference to “investigation” of the virus origins had been included in an earlier, 20 April version of the text seen by Health Policy Watch,  although it was presented there as a phrase that was still up for debate.

Countries’ Adherence to ‘National’ as well as ‘International laws’

The  resolution, set to be debated on Saturday, also has watered-down language about countries’ obligations to adhere to provisions of the WHO’s international health regulations that mandate transparency and rapid action on emerging pathogens – adding the term, “taking into account national”…  as well as international, laws. That loophole, which can checkmate international mandates, has been another big concern for critics of the investigation so far. That, in light of the fact that China has alerady held back on providing valuable data from national blood banks that could have revealed when the virus really began to spread  – saying that it would violate national privacy laws.

So far, the earliest cases that China acknowledges formally date from December 2019 – although a series of US intelligence leaks, as well as scientific and surveillance reports of increased hospital occupancy, flu cases and even mask purchases earlier that fall or winter, suggest that cases were occurring well before that in China.  Earlier circulation of the virus in Wuhan and Hubei province, a major center of trade and business with Europe, would also explain why surveillance reports from Italy and elsewhere in Europe have also found evidence of SARS-CoV2 antibodies in populations dating as early as August or September.

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.

“It is absolutely critical that the World Health Assembly mandate a comprehensive investigation into pandemic origins before the 2021 session closes on Monday,” Jamie Metzl, a senior fellow of the US Atlantic Council, told Health Policy Watch on Thursday. “If China should block that process, the only way forward will be for interested countries to work together to set up a parallel investigation process. We must not let China have a verto over whether or not we investigate the worst pandemic in a century which has unnecessarily killed so many millions of people.

Metzl was one of the co-authors of a detailed open letter penned by an international group of scientists to the World Health Assembly in late April, urging WHO member states to seize the moment of the upcoming World Health Assembly to adopt a much tougher mandate, with more rigorous scientific measures, to get to the truth of whether the SARS-CoV2 virus first infected humans from a natural source, a wild animal market, or in a laboratory.

US Mandates Major Investigation

Perhaps out of frustration with Geneva’s inaction, Biden’s administration only this week ordered a major investigation of its own –  ordering scientists and intelligence experts to explore with equal vigour the two main pathways by which the virus may have escaped – from a laboratory or via a more natural route.

“”Today the president asked the intelligence community to redouble their efforts to collect and analyze information that could bring us closer to a definitive conclusion, and to report back to him in 90 days,” said Principal Deputy Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre, speaking at a White House briefing on Wednesday.

“Back in early 2020, the President [then Donald Trump] called for the CDC to get access to China to learn about the virus, so we could fight it more effectively-  getting to the bottom of the origin in this this pandemic will help us understand how to prepare for the next pandemic,” she added.

“As we have done throughout our COVID response, we have been committed to a whole of government effort to ensure we’re doing everything to both understand and end this pandemic and to prevent future pandemics.

“This is why the President is asking the US intelligence community, in cooperation with other elements of our government, to redouble efforts to collect and analyze information that can bring the world closer to a definitive conclusion on the origin of the virus and deliver a report to him again in 90 days. It will be another hole of government of effort, as I mentioned, including work by our national labs and other agencies.”

With regards to the WHO-led investigation, which even WHO Director General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus had admitted was flawed, Jean-Pierre said:

“Importantly, we will continue to pushing for a stronger, multilateral investigation into the origins of the virus in China, and we will continue to press China to participate in a full transparent, evidence based, international investigation with the needed access to get to the bottom of a virus that’s taken more than 3 million lives across the globe. And critically, to share information and lessons that will help us all prevent future pandemics.

The White House statement marked the first time since Biden’s election that Washington has taken a direct lead on the thorny and geopolitically charged origins issue.  Although Trump’s administration had also launched an investigation into the same questions – that earlier quest was laced, from the start, by the hyperbole and politics around Trump’s overall approach to China and the WHO, leading many to dismiss the lab escape hypothesis a conspiracy theory.

However, in the intervening months, as the WHO investigation fumbled, while more shards of evidence emerged elsewhere about the problematic conditions in the Wuhan Virology Institute, its research into horseshoe bats that carry the same coronaviruses most similar to SARS-CoV2, and, most recently, reports that scientists in the virology lab may have fallen ill shortly before the COVID outbreak visibly began in Wuhan.  That has led to concerns among more and more mainstream scientists about the holes and omissions around the narrative about the virus emergence – emerging from both China and the WHO-led investigative team.

In addition, the speed and ease at which the virus became transmissible in humans, once it emerged, suggested to many that it may not have emerged from a natural, animal-borne route.

Said former US Centers for Disease Control Director Robert Redfield, a respected virologist, in a recent CNN interview,  I do not believe this somehow came from a bat to a human.  Normally when a pathogen goes from a zoonotic source to a human, it takes a while for it to figure out how to become more and more efficient in humans, in human transmission. … so I just don’t think this makes biological sense. ”





Image Credits: NIH/David Veesler, University of Washington.

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