WHO denies shift on COVID-19 origin probe after ‘probable hypothesis’ cited

Eduardo Baptista, South China Morning Post

Posted at Aug 15 2021 12:08 PM

The World Health Organization has denied shifting stance on its Covid-19 origins investigation in China after the head of its expert team gave an interview suggesting a lab researcher collecting bat viruses in the wild was a "probable hypothesis".

Scientist Peter Ben Embarek told broadcaster TV2 in his native Denmark that transmission from bats to humans could be considered in the context of four scenarios included in the joint WHO-China report. The four scenarios were direct animal-to-human spillover; original host to human via an intermediary; introduction through frozen products; and lab leak.

In the report, published in March, the possibility of researchers being infected in the field was not mentioned.

The WHO said Embarek gave the interviews in March and April, and did not contain "new elements nor a change of position. All hypotheses are on the table and the WHO works with member states on the next step."

Embarek also told TV2 that Chinese counterparts had resisted including the lab leak theory in the findings, and he suggested looking more closely at a lab operated by China's Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Wuhan, 500 metres from the Huanan Wholesale Seafood Market, where several of the first coronavirus infections were detected.

In January, Embarek, a programme manager at the WHO specialising in food safety and animal-to-human infectious diseases, led 19 foreign scientists on the mission to China. They worked with Chinese scientists appointed by Beijing.

At a press conference at its conclusion, Embarek said the two teams reached a consensus that it was "extremely unlikely" the virus resulted from a lab accident.

However, he appeared to express a more nuanced view in TV2's article and documentary, published on Thursday and Friday.

"You have to be careful not to divide and separate those four hypotheses completely from each other, because they are very closely linked, and you may have some scenarios where you go from one hypothesis to another," he said.

"The laboratory discharge hypothesis actually covers several scenarios. One of them is that an employee in the laboratory gets infected out in the field while he or she collects samples in a bat cave.

"Although it is part of the laboratory hypothesis, it is also part of the first hypothesis we have, i.e. direct transfer from bats to humans, and we have considered that hypothesis as a probable hypothesis."

Embarek told TV2 the Chinese team initially refused to include any mention of a lab-related scenario in the report.

According to Embarek, just two days before the preliminary report was to be presented in February, he convinced Chinese counterpart Liang Wannian to acknowledge the lab leak theory. Liang agreed on the condition that the report recommended the scenario not be investigated further, Embarek said.

"I said, 'Listen now. We must have this with us, otherwise we have no report. It will not be approved or accepted as a sensible, credible report,'" Embarek said. "And he could see that, but he also told me that for them it is difficult to accept discussion about a laboratory."

Former US president Donald Trump suggested last year, without offering evidence, that Covid-19 could have spread from the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV), which has researched bat coronaviruses for decades.

This research includes field trips to deep caves where coronavirus-carrying bats dwell. Shi Zhengli, a WIV researcher, in 2013 identified the closest relative to Sars-CoV-2 - the virus causing Covid-19 - by sampling horseshoe bats in Yunnan province.

The CDC lab in Wuhan was also carrying out research with horseshoe bats, according to Embarek.

"It is interesting that the laboratory moved on December 2, 2019," he said. "This is the period when it all started, and you know that when you move a laboratory, it is disruptive to everything."

He said that "at some point it will also be interesting to look at that period and this laboratory".

Embarek's remark contrasts with the report, which did not call for further studies on the CDC lab, saying it "reported no disruptions or incidents caused by the move, they also reported no storage nor laboratory activities on CoVs or other bat viruses preceding the outbreak".

The WHO did not comment on differences between Embarek's views and the report. Embarek did not respond to multiple requests for comment sent to his WHO email and social media accounts.

Embarek told TV2 that the WHO-appointed team in Wuhan had no access to primary documentation related to laboratories - an issue the WHO said China needed to address.

"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 WHO said on Thursday.

Virologist Tony Della-Porta, who ran WHO-sponsored biosafety workshops for the Chinese CDC between 2005 and 2007, said he understood why China was defensive about allowing independent investigation into its laboratories.

"When outside people want to come in and quiz them about whether there was a lab leak, rather than look at what led to the pandemic, the approach is confrontational rather than collaborative," he said.

Della-Porta investigated laboratory accidents in Taiwan and Singapore during the 2002-03 severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) outbreak, which started in southern China.

He said the Singapore government was very transparent during a 2003 investigation, for which he was given primary data including lists of viruses handled in the labs, samples of other highly pathogenic viruses, and the genetic sequence of the Sars virus isolated from an infected researcher.

"It was absolutely open, which is quite different, I'd say, from the group in Wuhan - they wouldn't have had access very much like that," said Della-Porta, adding that the WHO study was constrained by needing to find consensus between both groups.

"Half China-appointed experts, half WHO-appointed experts - it becomes very difficult to have open conversations in a group like that."

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