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WHO scientist says China tried to block lab-leak theory from COVID origins report

FILE - In this file photo dated Saturday, Feb. 6, 2021, a worker in protectively overalls and carrying disinfecting equipment walks outside the Wuhan Central Hospital. (AP Photo/Ng Han Guan, FILE)
FILE - In this file photo dated Saturday, Feb. 6, 2021, a worker in protectively overalls and carrying disinfecting equipment walks outside the Wuhan Central Hospital. (AP Photo/Ng Han Guan, FILE)
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The head of the World Health Organization's mission to investigate the origins of the coronavirus pandemic admitted that China pressured independent scientific investigators to drop the hypothesis that the virus escaped from a laboratory.

In a documentary aired Thursday on Danish TV2, Peter Ben Embarek said Chinese colleagues' opposition to the idea SARS-CoV-2 originated in a lab influenced the conclusions of a WHO-China joint report released in the spring.

"In the beginning, they didn’t want anything about the lab [in the report], because it was impossible, so there was no need to waste time on that," Ben Embarek told documentarians, according to The Washington Post. "We insisted on including it because it was part of the whole issue about where the virus originated."

Scientists investigating the emergence of the COVID-19 virus in Wuhan, China have been unable to settle the debate over whether it emerged naturally or whether it escaped from a lab. For months, international experts suggested the SARS-CoV-2 virus was transmitted from bats to humans, possibly through a third animal. Others suggested the virus may have come from the Wuhan Institute of Virology, where scientists were known to be researching coronaviruses.

Ben Embarek led the 28-day research mission in Wuhan that concluded Feb. 10. In early January, he was warning of possible dangers related to Wuhan lab's handling of coronaviruses "without potentially having the same level of expertise or safety" as other institutions. Those concerns and others shared by experts barely made it into the report.

Up until the final hours of the mission, the Chinese team fought to omit the lab-leak theory, he told Danish reporters. The head of the Chinese team finally agreed to include the theory in the report "on the condition we [the WHO] didn’t recommend any specific studies to further that hypothesis."

The final 120-page WHO report ranked four scenarios for the initial spread of the virus. Experts even gave credence to a theory promoted by the Chinese government that the virus was spread through frozen seafood packaging, saying it was "possible."

The transmission of the virus from bats to another host then to humans was said to be "likely to very likely." Direct spillover from bats to humans was considered "possible to likely." A lab accident was deemed "extremely unlikely," and researchers did not consider whether the virus was intentionally released or bioengineered.

Asked if Chinese officials influenced the language used to describe the probability of a lab leak as "extremely unlikely," Ben Embarek said, "It was the category we chose to put it in at the end, yes."

That influence was also seen in February, at a virtual press conference in Wuhan, when Ben Embarek publicly denied the plausibility of a lab leak and rejected the need to study it further to understand the origin of the virus.

Ben Embarek's comments underscored the political challenges of finding out how the pandemic started. Throughout the mission, WHO and other international leaders were frustrated by the lack of cooperation and transparency from Chinese authorities, particularly their willingness to provide raw data requested since the early days of the pandemic.

There was nothing surprising about the description of China exerting pressure over the final report, said Lawrence Gostin director of the O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law at Georgetown Law.

"The Chinese government was never going to allow a transparent and rigorous investigation, and it is unlikely to do so in the future," Gostin noted. "I believe that China stage-managed the WHO investigation and had a large measure of control over it."

The long-awaited report on the virus origins was met with skepticism all around when it was released this spring. The United States issued a joint statement with 13 other nations expressing concerns about "interference and undue influence" on the process. A German expert who served on the committee acknowledged that the final report was "a compromise."

Immediately after the report was released, the head of the World Health Organization emphasized that further investigation was needed to determine the source of the virus.

On Thursday, the WHO issued a statement announcing the second phase of its origin study. The organization said it intends to build on the first report and "accelerate scientific efforts on all hypotheses," including the possibility the virus escaped from a lab.

After months of downplaying the lab theory, WHO officials stressed the need to follow all scientific leads to understand how the virus emerged and prevent it from happening again. The World Health Organization reiterated the importance of having access to all data and considering scientific best practices when assessing how the pandemic originated.

"WHO is committed to following the science, and we call on all governments to put differences aside and work together to provide all data and access required so that the next series of studies can be commenced as soon as possible," the organization stated.

That did not sit well with China, which rejected the idea of opening new lines of investigation.

"The conclusions and recommendations of WHO and China joint report were recognized by the international community and the scientific community," China's Vice Foreign Minister Ma Zhaoxu said Thursday."Future global traceability work should and can only be further carried out on the basis of this report, rather than starting a new one."

Ma argued that attempts to get additional information were politically motivated, according to CBS. Other Chinese officials have denied the scientific possibility that the virus could have escaped the Wuhan Institute of Virology.

Figuring out the origins of the COVID-19 virus has become as much of a political venture as a scientific one.

U.S. officials from Congress up through the White House have gotten more aggressive in pursuing the possibility that the virus escaped accidentally from a lab.

On Friday, Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, said Chinese interference should not stop the United States from probing the source of the pandemic.

"We probably won't get true cooperation from China. However there are other avenues we can use to find out exactly what happened in that laboratory," Ernst told Sinclair Broadcast Group's James Rosen. She suggested subpoenaing information from American entities that worked with or provided funding to the Wuhan Institute of Virology, like the National Institutes of Health and the Ecohealth Alliance.

The Biden administration has been quietly investigating the origins over the past three months and is expected to receive a report from the U.S. intelligence community soon.

In May, President Joe Biden gave intelligence agencies 90 days to investigate the likelihood of animal-to-human transmission and the lab-leak theory. The order followed reports from a classified intelligence report that three researchers at the Wuhan Institute of Virology were treated for serious respiratory illness in November 2019, just before the known date the virus began circulating in the city.

Since then, members of Congress, on a bipartisan basis, have urged the administration to prioritize the investigation. Lawmakers and experts have warned that a failure to uncover the origins of the current pandemic would put the United States and the world at risk of another disaster.

With limited data and little transparency into what was happening in China in the early days of the pandemic, researchers have concluded that there is simply not enough evidence to support either the theory of a lab release or zoonotic spillover. Many top public health officials have hedged on the side of animal-to-human transmission.

However, there are questions about why researchers have been unable to find a close relative to SARS-CoV-2 in an animal a year and a half into the pandemic.

Scientists were able to trace the SARS1 virus back to bats and civets within four months of the outbreak. It took nine months to link the origins of the MERS virus to camels. In both cases, the virus left copious traces in the environment, explained science writer Nicholas Wade.

It's not clear whether that evidence exists for SARS-CoV-2. The closest genomic match was reportedly RaTG13, a virus discovered in the southwest China Mojiang mine in 2012 after six workers became ill with severe pneumonia. Researchers from the Wuhan Institute of Virology had bat samples from the site at the laboratory in 2019.

Another close match was RmYN02, a novel bat virus collected from hundreds of bats in Yunnan Province between May and October 2019.

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Gostin noted that he believes a naturally occurring infection is the most likely theory but noted the importance of investigating all possible theories to prevent the next pandemic. "In any case, after all the world has suffered, there is a right to know how it all began and whether it could have been prevented," he said.

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