International Scientists Call On WHO To Conduct “Full” Investigation Into Origins of COVID-19

The WHO and its member states must take swift action to enable a transparent, independent and rigorous investigation into the origins of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, said two dozen international scientists in their second open letter. 

The letter – released on Wednesday by 24 scientists and researchers across Europe, the United States, and Japan – comes on the heels of the controversial WHO-China investigation, which has been criticised for its methodological weaknesses, and for allegedly kowtowing to Chinese interests. 

“In our previous open letter, we outlined our fears that the joint international committee/Chinese government team ‘did not have the mandate, the independence, or the necessary access to carry out a full and unrestricted investigation into all the relevant SARS-CoV-2 origin hypotheses,’ said the letter on Wednesday, which was drafted by former US National Security Council official Jamie Metzl, who is a member of the WHO expert advisory committee on human genome editing.

“Having read the report entitled ‘WHO-convened Global Study of Origins of SARS-CoV-2: China part’…we have regrettably concluded that our concerns were fully justified.”

A group of scientists has called on the WHO and member states to conduct a more thorough investigation into the origins of SARS-CoV-2

WHO-Convened Study Methodologically Weak

Echoing earlier criticisms of the WHO-convened report, the letter expressed concerns that it arbitrarily discounted a key theory on the emergence of SARS-CoV-2, namely that it leaked from the Wuhan Virology Institute, a lab that is well-known for its research on bat coronaviruses that are closely related to SARS-CoV-2.

The Wuhan Institute of Virology, guarded by police officers during the visit of the WHO team on Wednesday.

Instead, the WHO’s report concluded it was “possible to very likely” that the virus emerged from bats and other wildlife via an animal. It also suggested that the virus could have spread through frozen foods – even though the evidence to support either of those theories remains lackluster, warned the letter.

“No solid justification is provided for why a ‘lab-related accident’(whether a lab-leak or sampling accident) should be considered ‘extremely unlikely’, or why a natural spillover via an unknown animal host should be considered ‘likely to very likely’. At this stage there is still no direct evidence for either pathway nor any verified data or evidence sufficient to rule any one out, while historical evidence amply supports both,” said the letter.

The letter also denounced the report for containing over a dozen incorrect, imprecise, and contradictory assessments in its appendix. One of those – in the report’s Annex D7 – claims that the deaths of a handful of miners in the Yunnan province in 2012 were ‘more likely explained by fungal infections”.

That view, however, contradicts positive antibody results for a bat SARS coronavirus in 4 out 6 of the miners that fell ill, the letter said. It also seems to go against the diagnosis of Zhong Nanshan, a leading coronavirus expert who believed that the primary cause of death of the miners was a SARS-like coronavirus infection rather than a secondary fungal infection.

“The fungal infection diagnosis is however in contradiction with the diagnostic of Prof. Zhong Nanshan, the foremost Chinese SARS expert at the time, who diagnosed a most likely primary infection from a SARS-like coronavirus, with a possible secondary fungal infection in some cases (pulmonary aspergillosis),” said the letter.

“Further, the diagnosis of the ‘WIV [Wuhan Institute of Virology] experts’ also contradicts the positive bat SARS coronavirus antibody tests (IgM and/or IgG) obtained for 4 of the 6 miners (these four tests were carried out at the WIV itself and described in this PhD thesis”.

Chinese Foreign Ministry Said Open Letter Lacks Scientific Credibility  

Responding to the open letter, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian questioned its scientific credibility, calling it an attempt to politicise the ‘origins’ investigation and to discredit China – claims that Metzl later rebutted on Twitter.

“These [open letter] signatories can deceive no one as to whether their letters are meant to make a true proposal for scientific and professional origin-tracing or target a specific country with presumption of guilt,” Jijian told a press conference on Thursday.

“The origin-tracing study was indeed affected by political factors, but that did not come from China, but from the United States and some other countries, who are bent on politicizing the origin-tracing issue in an attempt to disrupt China’s cooperation with WHO and discredit China, ” he added.

He also said the lab hypothesis is “extremely unlikely”, noting that the findings of the SARS-CoV-2 origins report were based on “frank” and “science-based exchanges” between WHO experts and “relevant” Chinese institutions.

“As for the lab hypothesis, experts on the mission all agreed that lab leaking is extremely unlikely, after visiting disease control centers in Hubei and Wuhan, the Wuhan Institute of Virology and various biosafety labs, and after having in-depth, frank and science-based exchanges with their Chinese peers from relevant research institutions.”

Open Letter Echoes Earlier Calls For More Robust Investigation

However, even the WHO’s director-general, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, who has tried to steer a careful balance between US and Chinese geopolitical rivalries on the origins investigation, has admitted that the report’s findings are limited – and he has also told member states that the lab hypothesis should not be discarded out of hand. 

“Although the team has concluded that a laboratory leak is the least likely hypothesis, this requires further investigation, potentially with additional missions involving specialist experts, which I am ready to deploy,” he said at a closed-door briefing with member states last month.

“I do not believe that this assessment was extensive enough. Further data and studies will be needed to reach more robust conclusions.”

The letter also echoes earlier calls from a bloc of 14 countries – including the United States, Australia, Canada, Denmark, Japan, Norway, Korea and the United Kingdom – for more comprehensive studies into the origins of the virus in the future.

“It is critical for independent experts to have full access to all pertinent human, animal, and environmental data, research, and personnel involved in the early stages of the outbreak relevant to determining how this pandemic emerged,” said the joint statement from member states. 

Renewed Commitment Needed To Enable Robust Investigation 

Going forward, the WHO and member states can take three possible steps to enable a more comprehensive, independent, and transparent study into the origins of SARS-CoV-2.

The “most logical” step would involve revising the terms of reference between the WHO and China, to ensure that:

  • The composition of the expert group is determined in a transparent way by the WHO’s Executive board;
  • The selection procedure prevents conflicts of interests;
  • The group includes experts on biosafety, biosecurity and biodata;
  • The group gains greater access to sites, records and data, without requiring supervision from government authorities;

In anticipation that the revisions “cannot be agreed upon and implemented in the very near term”, the letter proposes a second option – a new resolution that could be passed at the upcoming World Health Assembly (WHA) to give the WHO the legal mandate for an “independent” and “unrestricted investigation”.

However, should a resolution fail to be ratified at the WHA, the letter suggests a third option.

Governments could come together to develop a “new and independent process”, with China’s cooperation if possible, but without it if not.

“If it should prove impossible for the Terms of Reference to be quickly revised or for a new and sufficient World Health Assembly resolution to be passed in the coming session, the best remaining alternative would be for governments…to come together to develop a new and independent process, with China’s cooperation if possible but without it if not.”

-This story was updated on Friday to reflect the Chinese Foreign Ministry’s reaction to the open letter and Jamie Metzl’s subsequent response to it.

Image Credits: CNN, New York Times.

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