A team of scientists from the World Health Organization (WHO) is just getting home from their four-week stay in Wuhan, China, probing the origins of COVID-19. Their work is already attracting attention.
After White House press secretary Jen Psaki said it would be good to have American scientists “independently” verify the findings, one of the team members, Dr. Peter Daszak, tweeted, in part: I’m disappointed that a statement came out that might undermine the veracity of this work even before the report is released.”
The critiques are coming from all sides. “China gave them very controlled and limited access,” Johns Hopkins University’s Dr. Marty Makary told Fox News, “and got a report that was inconclusive and supports [China’s] narrative.”
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For its part the WHO team called the probe “robust.” And it is, in fact a few of the preliminary “conclusions” the team reached that are getting noticed.
The WHO scientists said in an exit briefing it is “most likely” that the coronavirus was initially transmitted via a jump from an animal to human (perhaps starting with a bat, associated with the Wuhan seafood market). That was widely believed.
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But they then said there is the “possibility” the virus could have ended up in Wuhan via frozen food. This is a narrative that Beijing has been pushing to shift the blame for COVID-19’s origin away from the country.
Furthermore, it is a means of transmission which other scientists have downplayed. A scientist with the WHO called so-called “cold-chain” transmission “extremely rare.” Makary suggested it was “scientifically implausible.”
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With the suggestion that option was a slight possibility, though, Chinese state media this week branded the virus as “not geographically bound.”
The WHO team also appeared to shut down speculation that the COVID-19 pandemic was a result of a leak from a lab in Wuhan. Not only did they call that “extremely unlikely,” they said it was pretty much not worth “further studies.”
A manufactured virus strain intentionally unleashed on Wuhan is widely dismissed. But some experts think the accident hypothesis warrants a second look. “We would need to do a proper investigation,” Makary told Fox News.
Chinese government journals seemed to jump on this absolution of their laboratories in the virus origination, demanding U.S. laboratories should instead open their doors for inspection and possible foul play.
It should be noted that later in the week, WHO Chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus noted, regarding the possible transmission of COVID in China, that “all hypotheses remain open and require further analysis and study.” That seemed intended to downplay a perceived ruling-out of the “lab leak” theory, as well as the greater emphasis the team seemed to put on COVID being transmitted via frozen food.
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Considering the delays to, and limitations on, this investigation, and the potential PR value for China, critics of the World Health Organization say the probe shouldn’t have been conducted at all.
“The WHO should not have gone to China,” Makary said flatly.
But given the deadly scale and scope of this global pandemic, others might agree with WHO team leader Peter Emberek when he said while they hadn’t made a dramatic change in the COVID-19 narrative, they did “add details to that story.”
The WHO says more probes are planned.