Scientists on WHO mission to China say time is running out to trace COVID-19 origins

Simone McCarthy, South China Morning Post

Posted at Aug 26 2021 02:44 PM

International scientists who took part in a World Health Organization probe into the origins of Covid-19 say time is running out to find answers, issuing their first joint statement since the release of their controversial mission report five months ago.

“The window of opportunity for conducting this crucial inquiry is closing fast: any delay will render some of the studies biologically impossible,” wrote the group of 11 independent scientists in a comment published on Wednesday in the journal Nature.

The experts took part earlier this year in a four-week WHO-backed field mission to Wuhan, China, where the virus that causes Covid-19 was first identified. They have called for action to “fast-track” now “stalled” scientific work needed to understand how the pathogen emerged.

Their call comes amid a heightened focus on uncovering how the pandemic began. In late May, US President Joe Biden ordered the US intelligence service to redouble its efforts to investigate the origin of the pandemic – including whether it came from a lab accident – and report back to him in 90 days. The White House received the classified report on Tuesday.

But there is also a deadlock over how and where the WHO-led research will continue. At the heart of that contention is the so-called lab leak theory.

Beijing has flatly rejected a WHO proposal for phase two research announced last month, as officials balked at the inclusion of laboratory audits in the proposal, an apparent move to further explore the theory that the virus could have emerged from a Wuhan laboratory studying related viruses.

China has also repeatedly sought to push the research focus outside its borders and accused the US of playing up the lab leak theory – which it denies is possible – to stigmatise China.

The hypothesis has gained traction in recent months among some in the scientific community who say a thorough probe needs to examine this possibility alongside the competing hypothesis that the virus emerged through natural contact with infected animals, a route considered most likely by the WHO team following their mission.

It is also favoured by a number of prominent experts, who typically point to the diversity of these viruses in nature and the possibility for them to spill over in the animal trade and wet markets, like the one associated with a number of early cases in Wuhan.

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