Tuesday, 30 March 2021

 

WHO an accessory to the Wuhan whitewash

Security personnel stand guard outside the Wuhan Institute of Virology in Wuhan as members of the WHO investigation team traces the origins of Covid. Picture: AFP
Security personnel stand guard outside the Wuhan Institute of Virology in Wuhan as members of the WHO investigation team traces the origins of Covid. Picture: AFP

The report — based primarily on an international team’s visit this year to the city of Wuhan, where Covid-19 was first detected — has little new information. But the team analyzes four origin scenarios.

The report says the most likely origin was a transfer to humans through bats with an intermediary host. The second most probable, according to the report, is that bats directly transmitted Covid-19 to humans. The report also takes too seriously a third theory, pushed by Beijing, that the virus arrived in China in frozen food, which the WHO claims is “possible” and merits more study.

Key extracts from the report

Direct zoonotic transmission

Assessment of likelihood

Based on the arguments listed, the zoonotic introduction scenario was listed as possible to likely.

What would be needed to increase knowledge?

To further investigate possible direct zoonotic introduction, detailed trace-back studies of the supply chain of the Huanan market (and other markets in Wuhan) have provided some credible leads to be followed. These leads can be followed to develop further surveys of potential reservoir hosts, including genomic surveys and serosurveys of high-risk potential reservoir hosts and their human contacts. Given the geographic range of the animal species in which closest relatives of SARS-CoV-2 have been found, such surveys should be expanded to include other countries, guided by knowledge on ecology and smuggling routes, guided by knowledge on ecology and smuggling routes.

Introduction through intermediate host followed by zoonotic transmission

Assessment of likelihood

Based on the above arguments, the scenario including introduction through an intermediary host was considered to be likely to very likely

What would be needed to increase knowledge?

Given the literature on the role of farmed animals as intermediary hosts for emerging diseases, further surveys including further geographic range are needed. Studies of the supply chain of the Huanan market (and other markets in Wuhan) have not found any evidence for presence of infected animals, but the analysis of supply chains has provided potential information that will inform a targeted design of follow up studies. For instance, there was evidence for supply chains leading to wild-life farms from provinces where the higher prevalence of SARSr-CoVs have been detected in bat surveys. While this does not prove a link, it does provide a meaningful next step for surveys, as model for similar studies in neighbouring regions. Meanwhile animal products from areas outside southeast Asia where more distantly related SARSr-CoVs circulate should not be disregarded. Surveys should be designed using a One health approach in larger areas and more countries, including genomic surveys and structured serosurveys of high-risk potential reservoir hosts and their human contacts.

Introduction through the cold/food chain

Assessment of likelihood

The consensus was that given the level of evidence, the potential for SARS-CoV-2 introduction via cold/ food chain products is considered possible.

What would be needed to increase knowledge?

In order to further study the potential for (frozen) food as a source of infection or the cold chain as an introduction pathway of SARS-CoV-2, case-control studies of outbreaks in which the cold chain product and food supply is positive would be useful to provide support for cold chain products and food as a transmission route. There are some preliminary reports of SARS-CoV-2 positive testing in other parts of the world before the end of 2019. There is also evidence of more distantly related SARSr-CoV in bats outside Asia. Some producers located in these countries were supplying products to the markets. If there are credible links to products from other countries or regions with evidence for circulation of SARS-CoV-2 before the end of 2019, such pathways would also need to be followed up. Screening of leftover frozen cold chain products sold in Huanan market from December 2019 if still available is needed, particularly frozen animal products from farmed wildlife or linked to areas with evidence for early circulation of SARS-CoV-2 from molecular data or other analyses.

Introduction through a laboratory incident

Assessment of likelihood

In view of the above, a laboratory origin of the pandemic was considered to be extremely unlikely.

What would be needed to increase knowledge?

Regular administrative and internal review of high-level biosafety laboratories worldwide. Follow-up of new evidence supplied around possible laboratory leaks.

Most telling is that the team concludes it is “extremely unlikely” that the virus leaked from a lab such as the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV). The report simply asserts that WIV facilities “were well-managed, with a staff health monitoring program.” The report suggests “regular administrative and internal review of high-level biosafety laboratories worldwide” and following up on new evidence.

Yet enough already is known about the WIV to suggest this lacks credibility. In 2018 U.S. officials warned in diplomatic cables about safety and management issues at the WIV that could lead to a pandemic. This is especially troubling because the WIV conducted “gain of function” research on coronaviruses that theoretically can enable them to infect a new species.

The U.S. State Department warned in a January fact sheet that WIV researchers had developed “symptoms consistent with both COVID-19 and common seasonal illnesses” in autumn 2019. The WHO report nonetheless takes the Chinese government at its word when it says there was “no reporting of COVID-19 compatible respiratory illness during the weeks/months prior to December 2019.”

The WHO’s Wuhan mission leader Peter Ben Embarek. Picture: AFP
The WHO’s Wuhan mission leader Peter Ben Embarek. Picture: AFP

Shi Zhengli of the WIV said last week that the lab has no ties to the Chinese military. But the State Department said in January that “the WIV has collaborated on publications and secret projects with China’s military” for years. The U.S. claims were based on extensive intelligence, and the Biden Administration hasn’t disputed the findings. Did the WHO team even examine U.S. evidence?

The WHO’s tissue-thin analysis isn’t surprising. Chinese government scientists provided most of the data and worked with the international team to craft the report. Beijing has limited independent access to information on Covid-19’s origin, much as it silenced scientists and journalists who raised doubts about the official story last year. The report’s publication was repeatedly delayed, as both sides negotiated a report that is more political than scientific.

The WHO team is also compromised by conflicts of interest. Zoologist Peter Daszak, the American on the team, has collaborated with the WIV for years and supported gain-of-function research.

theaustralian.com.au5:00

China is 'not engaged in a search for truth' in 'embarrassing' and 'discredited' WHO report

The World Health Organization - China joint study into the origins of the coronavirus is "123 pages of nothing" and is "embarrassing", says the Australian Strategic Policy Institute's Michael Shoebridge. "The study was done by 17 international experts attached to the WHO, 17 Chinese government experts, and then it thanks 26 other Chinese government officials for playing a key role," he said. "The whole thing had to be agreed by the Chinese government and was all subject to information from Chinese officials. "So it's not at all a surprise it propagates wacky, discredited theories about how the virus started and it downplays everything that happened in Wuhan in December and January." Mr Shoebridge said the report is "discredited as it lands on the world" and we shouldn't be surprised that "the Chinese government is not engaged in a search for truth".

As early as February 2020 he helped co-ordinate a statement in the Lancet condemning “conspiracy theories suggesting that COVID-19 does not have a natural origin.” Another team member, virologist Marion Koopmans, oversees an outfit in the Netherlands that has conducted gain-of-function research and could face serious repercussions if the pandemic started in a lab.

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The Biden Administration hasn’t taken a definitive position on the lab-leak theory, but Covid-19 spokesman Anthony Fauci played down the idea last week. Dr. Fauci’s institute financed work at the WIV and has backed gain-of-function research. He’s the wrong man to reassure the public about lab research on coronaviruses.

Dr. Fauci was trying to rebut Robert Redfield, the former chief of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, who said last week that “I still think the most likely etiology of this pathogen in Wuhan was from a laboratory.” Dr. Redfield added that virus transfer to a lab worker is not unusual in such research.

Members of the WHO team investigating the origins of the Covid-19 during their visit to the Hubei Center for animal disease control and prevention in Wuhan. Picture: AFP
Members of the WHO team investigating the origins of the Covid-19 during their visit to the Hubei Center for animal disease control and prevention in Wuhan. Picture: AFP

***

Even the WHO recognizes the implausibility of the report. “I do not believe that this assessment was extensive enough. Further data and studies will be needed to reach more robust conclusions,” WHO director-general Tedros Ghebreyesus said Tuesday.

“Although the team has concluded that a laboratory leak is the least likely hypothesis, this requires further investigation.” He’s ready to deploy more specialists, but don’t expect Beijing to welcome them.

The U.S. and 13 other governments released a statement Tuesday expressing “shared concerns” that the WHO study “was significantly delayed and lacked access to complete, original data and samples.”

Members of the WHO team in Wuhan in February. Picture: AFP
Members of the WHO team in Wuhan in February. Picture: AFP

That’s nice, but it sounds like they’re prepared to conclude that Covid’s origin story is unknowable and move on.

That shouldn’t be the end of it. The Biden Administration knows the underlying intelligence and should release it to the public. Unless it does, China’s propaganda backed by the WHO’s failure will prevail in much of world opinion.

The Biden Administration says it wants to revitalize multilateral institutions, and that should start with refusing to accept the WHO’s Wuhan whitewash.

WSJ

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