China has reacted with fury to any suggestion that the pandemic, which has killed at least 4.3 million people since it emerged in the city of Wuhan in December 2019, was caused by malpractice involving one of its laboratories.
But this is part of the “probable” hypotheses, according to the head of the mission of the World Health Organization which is investigating the origins of the pandemic.
“A lab worker is infected while working in a bat cave to collect samples. Such a scenario, while being a laboratory leak, would also correspond to our first hypothesis of direct transmission of the bat virus to humans. This is a hypothesis that we consider probable, ”Peter Ben Embarek told Danish public broadcaster TV2.
The first phase of the WHO study, conducted earlier this year, concluded on March 29 that the hypothesis of a laboratory incident remained “extremely unlikely”.
However, Embarek said it had been difficult for his team to discuss this theory with Chinese scientists.
But the WHO scientist pointed out that none of the types of bats believed to have been the reservoir of the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19 live in the wild in the Wuhan region. .
The only people likely to have approached these types of bats are employees of the city’s laboratories, he said.
The WHO on Thursday urged China to share raw data from the first cases of COVID-19 to help investigate the origins of the pandemic – and to release data to answer the theory of laboratory leaks.
The world health agency has also urged all countries to depoliticize the search for the origins of the pandemic.
In its statement, the WHO said the search for the origins of the pandemic “should not be an exercise in blaming, pointing the finger or pointing political.”
Theory is gaining momentum
Long ridiculed as a right-wing conspiracy theory and vehemently rejected by Beijing, the laboratory leak hypothesis has gained momentum.
He was a favorite under former US President Donald Trump, but his successor Joe Biden also wants this line of inquiry continued.
Biden has ordered a review of U.S. intelligence and a growing number of scientists are calling for an independent investigation by authorities beyond the WHO.
Jamie Metzl, who sits on a WHO advisory board on human genome editing and who has led efforts to call for an independent investigation into how COVID-19 started, described Embarek’s comments as ” a game changer, ”describing his earlier statement that a lab’s leak was unlikely“ shameful ”.
“It is even more significant that the team of international experts who said with such confidence in the February press event in Wuhan that a laboratory origin was unlikely themselves believed it was not. the case and was just trying to appease their hosts affiliated with the Chinese government, ”Metzl said. .
All scientists in the WHO-led team have been approved by China, and the team’s agenda and final report have also been approved by the Chinese government.
Embarek told TV2 that the purpose of the WHO team’s visit was “collaboration and discussion” with China.
In recent weeks, WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus has admitted it was “premature” to rule out a possible laboratory leak as a source of COVID-19, saying last month he was asking China to be more transparent about the first days of the pandemic. .
“I myself was a laboratory technician. I’m an immunologist and I’ve worked in the lab and lab accidents happen, ”Tedros said. ” It’s usual. ”