WHO says origin of Covid-19 in laboratory accident must be investigated

The World Health Organization (WHO) recommended in-depth investigation into the hypothesis that Covid-19 originated in a laboratory accident, a year after it considered the possibility “extremely unlikely”.

The position points to possible revision of the UN agency’s initial assessment of the origins of the pandemic and comes after critics accused the WHO of too quickly dismissing or downplaying the theory that the virus may have originated at the Institute of Virology in Wuhan, the city in central China where the first cases of the disease were diagnosed, in late 2019.

The WHO concluded last year that the hypothesis was “extremely unlikely”.

Many scientists argued that the new coronavirus was more likely to have been transmitted to humans from bats, possibly with another animal as an intermediary.

However, in a report released this Thursday (9), the WHO group of experts said that “key data” is still missing to determine how the covid-19 pandemic began.

The scientists said they “will remain open to any and all scientific evidence that becomes available in the future, to allow comprehensive testing of all reasonable hypotheses.”

They noted that as past laboratory accidents have triggered some outbreaks, the theory, which has been highly politicized, cannot be ruled out.

Identifying the source of a disease can take years. It took more than a decade for scientists to identify the bat species that served as a natural reservoir for severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), another coronavirus, detected in southern China in late 2002.

Virologist Jean-Claude Manuguerra, from the WHO group investigating the origin of covid-19, acknowledged that some scientists “may be averse” to the idea of ​​investigating the laboratory theory, but that it is necessary to keep an “open mind” to examine this hypothesis.

The report could reignite accusations that the WHO initially accepted, without question, the Chinese government’s explanations at the start of the outbreak in Wuhan.

Some top WHO members were frustrated with China during the initial outbreak, even after the UN agency praised Chinese President Xi Jinping. They were also frustrated by the way China sought to narrow research into the origins of the pandemic.

Former US President Donald Trump has repeatedly speculated – without any evidence – that Covid-19 originated in a Chinese laboratory, and accused the WHO of “collusion” with China to cover up the initial outbreak.

Experts, quoted by the Associated Press news agency, said that no studies had been provided to the WHO that evaluated the possibility that covid-19 resulted from a leak from a laboratory.

Jamie Metzl, who is a member of the WHO’s advisory group unrelated to the investigations, suggested that the G7 countries create their own team to research the origins of the virus, claiming that the organization does not have the political authority, experience and independence to carry out such a critical assessment.

Metzl welcomed the WHO’s call for further investigation into the laboratory theory, but said it was insufficient: “The Chinese government still refuses to share essential raw data and does not allow a thorough and necessary audit of the Wuhan laboratories.”

The group of WHO scientists tasked with investigating the origin of the coronavirus said several approaches were needed, including studies that assess the role of wild animals, and environmental studies in places where the virus may have spread for the first time, such as the fruit market. from the Huanan Sea in Wuhan.

In March 2021, the WHO released a report on the origins of covid-19, after a visit by international scientists to China. The report concluded that the disease had likely passed from bats to humans, and that there was no evidence to suggest a laboratory origin.

However, after criticism from the scientific community, including some WHO researchers, the agency’s director acknowledged that it was premature to discard the hypothesis.

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