Did COVID-19 break out of a research laboratory in China, the result of either incompetence or malice? Nope, not at all, the World Health Organization concluded after several weeks of investigation in Wuhan. WHO concluded that the likeliest scenario is a transfer from another species to human in the vicinity of that biological research facility that, er, Beijing doesn’t want anyone inspecting:
The coronavirus is unlikely to have leaked from a Chinese lab and is more likely to have jumped to humans from an animal, a World Health Organization team has concluded, an expert said Tuesday as the group wrapped up a visit to explore the origins of the virus.
The Wuhan Institute of Virology in central China has collected extensive virus samples, leading to allegations that it may have caused the original outbreak by leaking the virus into the surrounding community. China has strongly rejected that possibility and has promoted other theories for the virus’s origins. The WHO team that visited Wuhan, where the first cases of COVID-19 were discovered in December 2019, is considering several theories for how the disease first ended up in humans, leading to a pandemic that has now killed more than 2.3 million people worldwide.
“Our initial findings suggest that the introduction through an intermediary host species is the most likely pathway and one that will require more studies and more specific targeted research,” WHO food safety and animal diseases expert Peter Ben Embarek said at a news conference Tuesday.
“However, the findings suggest that the laboratory incidents hypothesis is extremely unlikely to explain the introduction of the virus to the human population” and will not be suggested as an avenue of future study, Embarek.
Well, as long as investigators kept an open mind, what’s to debate? Er … maybe this report from the Associated Press at the end of December?
More than a year since the first known person was infected with the coronavirus, an AP investigation shows the Chinese government is strictly controlling all research into its origins, clamping down on some while actively promoting fringe theories that it could have come from outside China.
The government is handing out hundreds of thousands of dollars in grants to scientists researching the virus’ origins in southern China and affiliated with the military, the AP has found. But it is monitoring their findings and mandating that the publication of any data or research must be approved by a new task force managed by China’s cabinet, under direct orders from President Xi Jinping, according to internal documents obtained by the AP. A rare leak from within the government, the dozens of pages of unpublished documents confirm what many have long suspected: The clampdown comes from the top.
As a result, very little has been made public. Authorities are severely limiting information and impeding cooperation with international scientists.
“What did they find?” asked Gregory Gray, a Duke University epidemiologist who oversees a lab in China studying the transmission of infectious diseases from animals to people. “Maybe their data were not conclusive, or maybe they suppressed the data for some political reason. I don’t know … I wish I did.”
The AP investigation was based on dozens of interviews with Chinese and foreign scientists and officials, along with public notices, leaked emails, internal data and the documents from China’s cabinet and the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention. It reveals a pattern of government secrecy and top-down control that has been evident throughout the pandemic.
An international organization dedicated to both science and independence would not have conducted an investigation under these conditions. As has been unfortunately and entirely clear since the beginning of this crisis, WHO is dedicated to neither. Under the direction of Tedros Ghebreyesus, WHO has acted as Xi Jinping’s wingman and as China’s apologist. If they concluded from research in China that the sun rose in the east, it would take at least one more study for that conclusion to have any credibility at all.
As it happens, the scenario outlined in this conclusion is certainly plausible. It’s been the assumed origin story since the beginning, focusing on the butchering practices in the “wet markets” of Wuhan and the potential for viral transference. But if COVID-19 really originated from a species jump in the wet markets, why is Xi so insistent on controlling any research or investigation into its origins? It could just be a higher-than-usual level of institutional paranoia normally found in communist regimes, but this kind of controlling behavior at least suggests that Xi knows something about COVID-19 that he wants kept buried.
If so, Xi hand-picked his wingman well in Ghebreyesus. The rest of the world should push back on this hack job and insist on a truly independent investigation by a truly independent agency. Unfortunately, this administration can’t run back to WHO with our cash fast enough.