The United States and China have expressed starkly opposed positions on how to trace the origins of the coronavirus pandemic, with Washington calling for a new round of studies to be conducted with independent international experts.
Beijing, meanwhile, said at an annual meeting of the World Health Organization’s decision-making body on Tuesday that it considered the investigation in its country to be over and that attention should now turn to other countries.
Earlier this year, a team of scientists assembled by the WHO spent a month in China, as part of an effort to understand the origins of the pandemic.
However, the team has largely confined itself to reviewing research conducted by scientists in the Chinese state. Some team members expressed frustration at not having had full access to the data used by their Chinese counterparts to conclude that there was little evidence of Covid-19 in China before the first confirmed cases in early December 2019.
In March, the WHO-led team recommended another second phase of research, but that work has yet to begin.
WHO is holding its annual World Health Assembly – its second during the Covid-19 pandemic, and the first after the Biden administration overturned former President Donald Trump’s decision to leave the organization. As part of their tie-up with the agency, U.S. officials are trying to shape the next phase of the WHO’s investigation into the origins of the virus.
“The purpose of the investigation is not to assign blame, but to base itself on science, to find the origin of the virus and the epidemic, and to help us all prevent future global disasters from happening. happen, ”said Jeremy Konyndyk, executive director. for Covid-19 at the U.S. Agency for International Development, in a virtual address to the Assembly on Tuesday.
Further investigation into the origins of the pandemic is “a key priority for us,” Andy Slavitt, White House senior advisor on the response to Covid-19, said in a briefing Tuesday. “We need to get to the bottom of this and we need a completely transparent process from China. We need the WHO to help him in this area. We don’t feel like we have that now.
But those efforts go against a push by China for the WHO to move its investigation to other countries, saying the pandemic may have originated elsewhere.
“Nothing can happen unless China says yes,” said Lawrence Gostin, faculty director of the O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law at Georgetown University. “WHO has no power under international law to require China to comply. “
He added, “Given the relationship between China and the United States, there is a negligible chance that the Chinese will capitulate to American demands for a full and independent investigation. “
To complicate matters, leading public health officials – including WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus – have called for a full investigation into whether the pandemic could have started with a laboratory accident.
Anthony Fauci, chief medical officer to President Biden, was questioned during a Senate hearing on May 11 whether the Covid-19 virus could have escaped from a laboratory in Wuhan, which houses the Wuhan Institute of Virology , who has conducted extensive research on coronaviruses transmitted by bats. He replied, “That possibility certainly exists and I am totally in favor of a full investigation into whether it could have happened.”
China strongly disputes that such a laboratory accident is a plausible explanation for the pandemic. The Beijing Foreign Ministry and the Embassy in Geneva could not be reached for comment.
China said it was cooperating fully with a WHO-led team that spent four weeks in Wuhan, visited the institute of virology and concluded that a laboratory accident was “extremely unlikely.” Beijing has now asked the WHO-led team to look for evidence the virus may have circulated elsewhere before the first confirmed cases in Wuhan in early December 2019.
Scientists widely agree that there is not enough strong evidence for the lab’s hypothesis, or for the main alternative: that the virus spreads from animals to humans outside of a lab.
“Currently, [in] the origin tracing study organized by the WHO, the Chinese side is finished, ”a Chinese delegate told diplomats at a meeting via video conference on Tuesday. “China is helping scientists conduct global origin research cooperation. We call on all parties to adopt an open and transparent attitude to cooperate with WHO in the search for origins. “
The United States, meanwhile, told diplomats the WHO should oversee a second round of studies under rules that “give international experts the independence necessary to fully assess the origins of the virus,” Xavier said. Becerra, the US Secretary of Health and Human Services.
The United States did not directly mention whether a laboratory investigation should be part of this investigation.
However, a delegate who spoke on behalf of the European Union said the WHO-led team should fully pursue their four main assumptions. These also include both a lab accident and another Chinese idea that the virus could have been transmitted to humans via frozen food.
The WHO-led team made a series of recommendations on how a second phase of its origins investigation should be conducted, for example by testing samples of wild animals, livestock and archived blood to detect the presence of antibodies against the virus responsible for Covid-19. According to the general guidelines, the United Nations agency would not carry out these studies itself; researchers in China or elsewhere would do it.
WHO has also said it would be interested in further studies on early but unconfirmed cases outside China, such as a young woman and boy who may have been Covid-19 patients in Italy in the end of 2019.
No resolution currently exists in the Assembly to advance or refocus the WHO investigation into origins. WHO officials said there were few signs that governments could agree on the way forward. “Where we are now, we are waiting,” said one of them.
Write to Drew Hinshaw at [email protected], Betsy McKay at [email protected] and Jeremy Page at [email protected]
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