The US and UK have sharply criticized a World Health Organization report on the onset of the coronavirus pandemic in Wuhan, implicitly accusing China of “denying access to full data and samples and originals ”.
The statement, also signed by 12 other countries, including Australia and Canada, followed an admission Tuesday by WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus that the investigation was “not broad enough” and that experts struggled to access raw information during their four-week visit to Wuhan in January.
Tedros also said further consideration should be given to the theory that the virus escaped from a laboratory at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, even though the report deemed it “extremely unlikely” as a source. pandemic – a theory promoted by some in the Trump administration. .
The long-awaited report from experts appointed by the WHO and their Chinese counterparts said the global pandemic was likely of animal origin.
The 14-country statement, which criticized delays in the investigation, called for early access by independent experts at the onset of future pandemics, and once again underscored the highly controversial policy around the investigation over the course of which WHO experts gained access to China after months of tense negotiations. .
Weighing separately, the White House urged the WHO to take further action to determine the origins of Covid-19. “There is a second step in this process which we believe should be led by international and independent experts,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters.
“They should have unlimited access to the data. They should be able to ask questions of people who are on the ground right now, and that is a step the WHO could take, ”she added.
China has been accused on several occasions in Western capitals of obstructing the investigation into the origins of the coronavirus pandemic in Wuhan, including the WHO investigation.
The interventions took place after Tedros himself described the team’s problems in accessing all the information they sought.
“In my discussions with the team, they expressed the difficulties they were having in accessing the raw data,” Tedros said.
“I expect future collaborative studies to include more timely and comprehensive data sharing,” he said emphatically while adding that the report “advances our understanding in important ways.”
Tedros’ comments came as members of the investigative team admitted there was political influence both inside and outside of China over them, but said that they were never under pressure to remove “critical elements” from their report.
While concluding that the two least likely hypotheses for the emergence of the deadly virus – a lab leak (pushed by senior Trump officials) and introduced via frozen food from outside (promoted by China) – the team vowed to continue to follow leads in either case in what appeared to be a diplomatic effort to keep Beijing and Washington aside.
The report, compiled by international experts appointed by the WHO and their Chinese counterparts, did not draw any definitive conclusions, but ranked a series of hypotheses according to their likelihood, assessing the laboratory leak hypothesis ” extremely unlikely ”with most likely leaping from bats to humans via an intermediate animal.
“Although the team concluded that a lab leak is the least likely hypothesis, it requires further investigation, possibly with additional missions involving specialist experts, which I am prepared to deploy,” Tedros said. .
China has been widely criticized in Western capitals for its lack of transparency in the first weeks of the pandemic, and Tedros’ comments mark a flashback to early praise for China’s initial response as complaints from senior officials Biden officials are continuing on opening up China.
The framing of the initial investigation publication is in line with comments made by team members before traveling to Wuhan when they warned that they would be highly unlikely to find a “smoking gun” during the trip. of their first visit.
Introducing the report, Peter Ben Embarek, a WHO expert on diseases that pass from animals to humans who led the mission in Wuhan, said he was unable to find evidence through the network surveillance or excess mortality data for cases of the emerging novel coronavirus. before December 2019.
“In terms of key data, we looked at data from different surveillance systems looking at cases of fever and unspecified pneumonia… and respiratory syndromes,” he said at a press conference in Geneva.
“We looked at 76,000 symptom cases in the months leading up to December to look for undetected Covid cases, but we found nothing.”
However, he added that there was still a possibility that the virus had circulated as early as November and that some cases were overseas.
Ben Embarek also relayed the concern of Chinese scientists in a Wuhan lab studying viruses who said they were initially worried they had escaped, but added that there was no evidence that he was involved in a leak.
Echoing Tedros’ remarks, Ben Embarek said there were areas where his team was struggling to access raw data in China, adding that the data should be revisited in the next phase of the investigation.
Highlighting the preliminary nature of the study so far, Ben Embarek said their work has so far “only scratched the surface” of their understanding of the origins.
Despite studying data from samples from a large number of farmed wild animals, researchers could not find evidence of Covid-19.
With so many questions still unanswered, the report served more to shut down some theories than to find a smoking weapon, including the raised possibility that Covid-19 circulated for weeks or even months before it appeared in Wuhan.
In response to the report, former US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who pushed the theory of laboratory leaks, albeit without evidence, claimed the report was a Beijing-backed cover-up.