WHO Denies it Abandoned Investigation of COVID-19 Origins – But Way Forward Unclear
Dr Maria Van Kerkhove, speaking at Wednesday’s media briefing.

A senior World Health Organization (WHO) official has emphatically denied that abandoned its investigation of the origins of the virus that caused the COVID-19 pandemic.

The comment by Dr Maria Van Kerkhove, COVID-19 technical lead, was in response to a report published on Tuesday by Nature which stated that the agency has “quietly shelved” its plans to continue with its investigation of SARS-CoV2’s origins. due to the barriers to plans to conduct further, crucial studies in China. A controversial report by a joint Chinese and international mission to Wuhan, covering the first phase of the investigation was published in March 2021,  But critics said glossed over China’s omission of key patient data from the early days of the outbreak in Wuhan. The report also declared that it was “extremely unlikely” that the virus could have escaped from a local research laboratory, without sufficient data or evidence to make such a determination, critics said. 

Subsequently, WHO laid plans for an extensive set of on-site, follow-up studies over the summer of 2021, including further assessment of Wuhan wild markets, the lab escape theory, and closer examination of early transmission patterns, based on blood samples from anonymized patient data. But China rejected those plans outright, and has remained unwilling to release further patient data or to let teams of researchers visit the country.

In the Nature report, Van Kerkhove was quoted saying that WHO had in fact abandoned its plans for a Phase II of the COVID origin studies: “There is no phase two,” she reportedly said. While WHO protocols had called for extensive follow-up studies in China, “that plan has changed”, she added, saying: “The politics across the world of this really hampered progress on understanding the origins.”

Speaking at Wednesday’s briefing, Van Kerkhove appeared to walk back on her comments, stating:

“I think we need to be perfectly clear that WHO has not abandoned studying the origins of Covid 19. We have not, and we will not.”

However, she also admitted that WHO’s “updated” plans for a second phase would have to take a more generalized approach to the origins question:  

“In a sense, phase two became the Scientific Advisory Group for the Origins of novel pathogens (SAGO),” she clarified. SAGO held its first meeting in November 2021 and was established as a permanent advisory group to work on drawing up a framework to understand the origins of not just COVID-19 but any future outbreaks. “So the creation of SAGO was in effect, our best effort to move this work forward.”

China has evaded WHO’s requests for cooperation

China continues to refuse WHO’s requests to release more data or to open its borders to scientific teams for further on-site investigations, Kerkhove also admitted.

“Studies that were recommended from the March 2021-WHO report, from the June 2022-SAGO report and studies that we’ve been recommending at the animal human interface and markets, on farms need to be conducted in China. We need cooperation from our colleagues there to advance our understanding,” she added. 

Over the past year, WHO repeatedly called on China to cooperate in further SARS-CoV2 origin studies. Last month, WHO Director General Dr Tedros Adhanom Gheyebresus also appealed to Beijing to share more data about death rates and SARS-CoV2 variants ciculating in the country as the country was swept by a fresh COVID wave after removing its controversial “zero COVID” policy measures. 

Dr Tedros added that it remains crucial to understand the origins of the pandemic for scientific and moral reasons. 

“Millions of people lost their lives and many suffered. The whole world was taken hostage by a virus. It’s morally very important to know how we lost our loved ones.

“Recently, seven weeks ago, I sent a letter to a top official in China, asking for cooperation because we need cooperation and transparency and the information we ask in order to know how this started,” he stated.

But apparently so far, there has been no return mail.

Image Credits: Megha Kaveri.

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