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The WHO appealed to China to share raw data and blood samples from early and potential cases in 2019, and to grant access to labs. Photo: Handout

WHO calls for ‘spirit of partnership’ in hunt for Covid-19 origins

  • Health body says next stage will be based on science and ‘should not be an exercise in finger-pointing or political point-scoring’
  • It comes as China and the United States have for months been exchanging heated rhetoric over investigations into the pandemic
The World Health Organization has called for a “spirit of partnership” in the search for the origins of Covid-19, as China, the US and others exchange heated rhetoric over the investigation.
The global health body said the next steps to find the origins of the pandemic would be based on science, and denied claims from China and other member countries that it had refused to rule out the lab leak theory because of political pressure.

“WHO reiterates that the search for the origins of Sars-CoV-2 is not and should not be an exercise in attributing blame, finger-pointing or political point-scoring,” the UN agency said in a statement on Thursday. “In order to address the ‘lab hypothesis’, it is important to have access to all data and consider scientific best practice and look at the mechanisms WHO already has in place,” it said.

“WHO is only focused on science, providing solutions and building solidarity.”

The statement comes as China and the US have for months been trading barbs over the pandemic, accusing each other of politicising the origins investigations. At the same time, both sides have pushed theories, without evidence, that the virus may have escaped from a laboratory in the other country.


China rejects WHO plan to revisit Covid-19 lab leak theory

China rejects WHO plan to revisit Covid-19 lab leak theory
Last month, Beijing rejected the WHO’s plan for the second phase of investigation, which included audits of relevant laboratories in Wuhan, where the first Covid-19 cases were reported in late 2019. An official with China’s National Health Commission called the lab hypothesis – centred on the Wuhan Institute of Virology – a rumour, while the foreign ministry has in recent months promoted the theory that a lab at US military base Fort Detrick in Maryland could be a source of the virus.

In the first stage, a WHO-backed mission to Wuhan earlier this year said the lab leak theory was highly unlikely, but the findings have been criticised, with some researchers saying the scientists lacked access to key information such as hospital data and details of the viruses stored in Wuhan’s labs.

On Thursday, the WHO appealed to China to share raw data and blood samples from early and potential cases in 2019, and to grant access to labs such as the Wuhan Institute of Virology. It gave the examples of Russia and the US – the only two countries that keep stocks of the eradicated smallpox virus. These stocks are kept in secure labs that are inspected by WHO biosafety teams every two years and their reports are made public, according to the health body.

“Analysing and improving lab safety and protocols in all laboratories around the world, including in China, is important for our collective biosafety and security,” the statement said.

Lab leak or nature? Debate heats up on the origins of Covid-19 virus

Chinese foreign vice-minister Ma Zhaoxu responded to the WHO statement in a briefing with foreign diplomats on Friday, saying Beijing was not against the origins study. But he said the WHO Secretariat had not properly consulted member states on the plan for the second phase and it was not based on the terms laid out in the March report on the Wuhan mission, according to state broadcaster CCTV.

“[We] oppose an origins study that abandons the first WHO-China joint report. What we support is a scientific investigation of the origins,” Ma said.

Xu Jianguo, a laboratory director with the Chinese Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, also spoke at the briefing, saying the coronavirus was a naturally occurring infectious disease and could not have leaked from a lab, according to news website The Paper.


Nature or lab leak? Why tracing the origin of Covid-19 matters

Nature or lab leak? Why tracing the origin of Covid-19 matters

It is a tough balancing act for the WHO. After a period of uncertainty in the Donald Trump era, key donor the US has repaired ties with the health body – underscored when Secretary of State Antony Blinken met its chief, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, in Kuwait last month. But the WHO also needs China’s cooperation for future Covid-19 origins studies and public health initiatives.

Scott Rosenstein, a senior public health adviser at New York-based consultancy Eurasia Group, said the cooling of the relationship between China and the WHO was noteworthy because it had been one of “Beijing’s few remaining defenders” before the phase two proposal.

WHO chief Tedros repeatedly praised China’s response during the initial outbreak in Wuhan last year.

“With the relationship with the WHO now souring I think it’s unlikely that there will be much in the way of new on-the-ground research in China looking at either natural or lab leak origin,” Rosenstein said earlier.

China scientist calls for ‘continuity’ in next phase of WHO origins hunt

He added that the US would also be limited in its efforts to lead the way on origins tracing without access to China. “There is only so much the US can do outside of China, and even within China a lot of the evidence that could be helpful to determine the origin of the virus may no longer exist,” he said. “The most likely route to a better understanding of the origin is going to be a Chinese whistle-blower or some other intel gained without Beijing’s assistance.”

Daniel Aldrich, director of the security and resilience studies programme at Northeastern University in Boston, said despite the tensions in the relationship it would be necessary for the US and China to cooperate on origins tracing.

He added that China’s credibility as a “transparent great power” would also be boosted if it cooperated with the WHO. “Given the importance of openness, transparency, and reproducibility in science, the Chinese foreign ministry and other government officials would find cooperating would likely be more effective than pushing back against the WHO’s plans for origin tracing,” he said.

Additional reporting by Zhuang Pinghui

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: WHO calls for joint effort in tracing Covid-19 origins amid war of words