Commentary on Political Economy

Wednesday, 10 February 2021


‘No evidence’ for WHO to rule out lab leak: expert

Security personnel stand guard outside the Wuhan Institute of Virology as members of the World Health Organisation (WHO) team investigating the origins of the COVID-19 coronavirus make a visit. Picture: Hector Retamal/AFP
Security personnel stand guard outside the Wuhan Institute of Virology as members of the World Health Organisation (WHO) team investigating the origins of the COVID-19 coronavirus make a visit. Picture: Hector Retamal/AFP

Leading epidemiologist Raina MacIntyre has questioned why a World Health Organisation delegation that investigated the origins of COVID-19 ruled out the theory that the virus had escaped from a laboratory without providing evidence. 

The lab theory has been vehemently disputed by China but pushed by the United States, and the delegation that visited China to investigate the origins of SARS-CoV-2 included the theory as one of its lines of investigation.

The team, comprised of scientists from ten countries including Australia, worked closely with China as the communist nation facilitated access to its institutions, including the Wuhan Institute of Virology, which was studying bat coronaviruses at the time SARS-CoV-2 first emerged in the city.

Professor MacIntyre, the head of the biosecurity program at the University of NSW’s Kirby Institute, said the WHO team had not provided evidence as to why it dismissed the lab theory as “extremely unlikely”.

“In my view, of course it’s possible that the virus emerged in nature from a bat and then an intermediary animal that infected humans,” Professor MacIntyre said. “But it’s also possible that it was a lab accident, and you can’t rule out that.

“They don’t provide clear evidence on why they ruled it out.”

Professor Raina MacIntyre. Picture: UNSW
Professor Raina MacIntyre. Picture: UNSW

The WHO delegation failed to find the origins of SARS-CoV-2 during their investigation and has said it will continue to work on a number of hypotheses, the most likely one being that the virus infected humans from an animal via an intermediary host.

They also haven’t ruled out that the virus originated in fresh food sold in Wuhan markets, and will continue to investigate whether the virus originated in a region other than Wuhan including potentially another country. . Some experts have questioned whether the WHO was in a position to properly investigate the origins of the virus in China given its need to appease a member state. The Washington Post reported that “the team’s enthusiastic praise for Chinese officials led many to wonder whether the agency was up to the task of holding the country to account.”

‘Limited scope’

Professor MacIntyre said the WHO team’s findings were not a surprise.

“I think the team had a very limited scope and I wasn’t really expecting to see any sort of starling revelations,” she said.

“I pretty much expected to see reflections on the animal origins of SARS-CoV-2 which is a comfortable and safe base.”

Professor MacIntyre said it was not clear what evidence the investigators examined at the Wuhan Institute of Virology.

“What I would have liked to have seen in the report is a list of what data and information they were provided, and what data they were not provided,” she said.

“I would have liked to know what findings were based on data and information and what findings were just supposition.

‘Political considerations’

“Ultimately, I don’t think WHO is the agency that are able to find the scientific truth. They are obligated to their member states, and they have to manage political considerations with their member states.

“I don’t believe they have any evidence upon which to dismiss the lab theory. It’s just a statement. They said they had good safety protocols. Well, we know that’s the case today but we don’t know what was happening a year ago or a year and a half ago in that lab,

“We do know that one of the one of the members of that team was actually part of an organisation that was funding that coronavirus research at the Wuhan Institute of Technology.

“So ideally, you’d want a completely independent team during that kind of investigation.

“But pragmatically, the only way to do that investigation will be through WHO so it’s kind of a Catch 22. WHO doesn’t really have the ability to do any sort of sensitive probe into this kind of question, but it’s also the only organisation that can go in the country by invitation.

“The truth is, we’ll probably never know the origins of the virus.”

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