No entry: Trouble ahead in China for the WHO's COVID-19 origins hunt

Simone McCarthy, South China Morning Post

Posted at Jul 28 2021 01:22 PM

The World Health Organization plans to drive forward the investigation into the origins of the Covid-19 pandemic, but it is more likely to be spinning its wheels for months to come.

The UN mandated body has laid out five areas of interest and one of them looks set to thwart hopes for the cooperation needed to track down how this pathogen passed into people. The particular area of interest would entail full disclosure from China to rule out the hypothesis that the virus causing the respiratory disease may have escaped from a laboratory in the central Chinese city of Wuhan.

Beijing has flatly rejected the WHO proposal, angered by what it calls the politicisation of a scientific inquiry. China argues that the WHO seems to have ignored the findings of an earlier team that visited Wuhan and said it was "extremely unlikely" the virus emerged as a result of the so-called lab leak.

"As China has explicitly rejected the WHO proposal of the phase 2 mission, it is practically infeasible to carry out the mission in China or in Chinese labs," said Jaemin Lee, a professor of law at Seoul National University, pointing to the UN body's legal limitations.

As part of the next stage of the virus hunt, the WHO wants a new group of scientists to take the lead. This move is expected to sideline a team of 10 international specialists who spent four weeks in Wuhan earlier this year with Chinese scientists evaluating research on how the virus began spreading in the city, where it was first identified in late 2019.

Calls for further examination of the lab leak hypothesis, alongside the alternative that the virus emerged naturally, have grown in both scientific and diplomatic circles outside China.

The emphasis on the lab leak theory would slow the next stage of investigations, said a person familiar with discussions among the first WHO team that visited Wuhan.

"The concern is that it's going to delay things, just the structure of having a new process put in place will delay things for months, then add to that the request for (laboratory) audits, will lead to endless months of negotiation," said the person, who declined to be named to discuss confidential conversations.

Negotiating this more politically sensitive access separately from continuing studies on animals in China, which the team deemed a very likely pathway for spillover, could have been another option for the WHO to take, the source said, adding there was concern about political motivations for its inclusion.

Proponents of further research into the lab leak hypothesis argue the theory was not given fair or sufficiently thorough evaluation in the first mission and a further mission would not be complete without it.

The WHO circulated its proposed new plan among its 194 member states earlier this month and on July 16 announced its decision to establish a new permanent body known as the Scientific Advisory Group for Origins of Novel Pathogens, or Sago, to take the reins of the phase 2 research.

Details of how big the group will be and how it will operate have yet to be made public, with the WHO saying at that time only that it would launch the call for expert nominations from member states and other channels "soon".

In addition to including "audits of relevant laboratories and research institutions operating in the area of the initial human cases identified in December 2019", the WHO has also called for research to trace the pathogen in environmental and animal studies, medical investigations and genetic tracing, in the phase 2 work, which is expected to also include studies outside China as recommended by the phase 1 team.

However, the broader scientific community and the WHO director general have looked to keep the focus on additional work in China, where the first patients and the closest known bat viruses were identified. The WHO has said its next step is working with countries to develop operational plans and a terms of reference for the next series of studies.

But it is uncertain whether the WHO can deliver on coordinating more research on the ground in China, after six top Chinese officials and experts publicly rejected the proposed plan last week. They stressed the lack of evidence linking the virus that causes Covid-19 to the Wuhan Institute of Virology, at the centre of the lab leak concerns, and stressed instead the need for international research into the origins.

In response to Beijing's rebuff, a WHO spokesman said: "We all have an obligation to try to understand how the pathogen came into the human population. Countries have the responsibility to work together and to work with the WHO in a spirit of partnership."

While the WHO can move forward in building its advisory group, it is unclear when and whether international members of that team would gain access to China or its data, with experts saying what is next is a complex negotiation for the WHO and Beijing.

Pedro Villarreal, a senior research fellow at the Max Planck Institute for Comparative Public Law, said there was "always the possibility of a stalemate" in these kinds of negotiations between international organisations and their member states, with no legal recourse available for the WHO besides escalating to another United Nations body, like the General Assembly.

"We will witness this type of negotiation (of) how much is one party able to cede or how much a member state is willing to accept in terms of a new investigation ... but I'm not sure how the (WHO) could sweeten the deal," he said.

Lee of Seoul National University said that as China would also feel the increasing pressure from the international community to provide more access for study within its borders, the two sides might seek a compromise.

"Perhaps, the phase 2 mission moves forward, but by reflecting some demands from China in the scope and, or manner of the prospective investigation," he said.

The central contention - the lab leak theory - has led to considerable suspicion in an already rocky relationship between the United States and China.

US "remarks and actions" related to the investigation were on a list of grievances presented by Chinese foreign vice-minister Xie Feng to US deputy secretary of state Wendy Sherman during a meeting in Tianjin on Monday.

A People's Daily column on Monday compared the US stance to "old tricks" to "vilify" other countries in line with its use of flawed intelligence on Iraqi weapons of mass destruction to justify an invasion in 2003.

"The fundamental reason the United States continues to use the epidemic to spread lies and slander China is because some people cannot accept the fact China is developing and becoming stronger," the column, published under a pen name, read.

Chinese officials have also questioned why their lab should be investigated and not others that may be studying pathogens.

White House statements about the WHO origins investigation largely call for a "scientific, transparent, expert-led" second phase and more data transparency from China, while avoiding mentioning the laboratory leak theory. But concerns about facilities like the Wuhan Institute of Virology have taken on a new urgency under US President Joe Biden, who gave his intelligence agencies 90 days to evaluate the theory and its natural origins alternative. That time is up next month.

The US and its allies said the mission suffered from missing data and "undue" influence from China, with critics saying it was hindered by conflicts of interest on the expert team, which included a member who had a long-standing collaboration with the Wuhan institute.

WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus also called for more transparency from China and said there were issues of data access from the early phase of the pandemic - a charge Beijing has denied.

How the WHO handles Beijing's rebuff could also be seen as a test for the agency, which came under fire for being too deferential to China in the early phase of the pandemic and in the organisation of the first phase mission.

"(The) WHO faces two challenges that are in serious, perhaps fatal, tension - rebuilding its legitimacy and credibility and navigating the increasingly ugly geopolitics of the pandemic, including the controversy over the origins of the virus," said David Fidler, a senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York.

He said that for the WHO, the inclusion of the lab leak was critical for several reasons, including a lack of complete evidence for the naturally occurring outbreak meaning that scientifically other options should not be foreclosed.

"For the director general and (the) WHO's credibility, the next phase of the origins investigation had to include the lab leak question. Politically, leaving out the lab leak possibility would have produced serious backlash from the United States and its like-minded allies, putting (the) WHO in an even more precarious situation in the midst of the ongoing pandemic," he said.

The creation of Sago might help the WHO to show it could function without "taking sides" in balance-of-power politics, Fidler added.

But others are not so sure. Gerald Keusch, associate director of the National Emerging Infectious Diseases Laboratory Institute at Boston University, said "dismissing" original team members would diminish the credibility of the WHO, noting that the UN body, by nature of its funding structure, was subject to political influence.

Members of the previous team would likely need to reapply to join, observers said.

The establishment of the group would be a practical way to expand the expertise and geographical representation of the group - especially given the breadth of the research being called for by the WHO in its new plan, others say.

"Typically how the WHO and other organisations set up these panels is they really look at regional representation, cultural representation, gender representation (from) the expertise globally, and I don't think that was necessarily the case with the group that went out in China," said Wanda Markotter, director of the Centre for Viral Zoonoses at the University of Pretoria in South Africa.

Meanwhile, a broad geographic representation on the panel could make it "easier to implement studies in different regions", she said.

The phase 2 research is expected to involve areas around the world with signs of early spread of the virus, as has been reported in a handful of studies in Europe and the Americas, or closely related bat viruses - thought to be the original source of the pandemic strain - such as Southeast Asia.

Sara Davies, a professor of international relations at Australia's Griffith University, said Sago could also play a role in moving the China studies forward, if work began taking place in other countries but not in China.

"The new body will still exist and they will still go out and follow on other leads, and the WHO will just hope that creates pressure for China to agree to some sort of access."

Copyright (c) 2021. South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.

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