WHO’s coronavirus inquiry compromised by politics say scientists
Two dozen scientists have called for an international forensic investigation to take over the World Health Organisation’s probe into the origins of COVID-19, as the global health body delays an interim report on its findings in Wuhan.
The open letter, which was signed by Australian researchers Colin Butler, Rosemary McFarlane and Nikolai Petrovsky, said the WHO report was compromised by the limitations of operating under the control of Chinese authorities.
Peter Ben Embarek, the WHO mission chief.Credit:AP
The scientists said that Beijing had refused to provide key data samples to the investigation team, while pressure from the Chinese Communist Party may have limited the scientific independence of the Chinese team that was part of the joint mission.
“We have therefore reached the conclusion that the joint team did not have the mandate, the independence, or the necessary accesses to carry out a full and unrestricted investigation into all the relevant SARS-CoV-2 origin hypotheses – whether natural spillover or laboratory/research related incident,” they said.
The Morrison government has been concerned about the degree of independence afforded to the panel of investigators, but it does not support scrapping the process and starting from scratch.
Australia originally pushed for an inquiry to be held completely outside of the WHO, saying it couldn’t be “poacher and gamekeeper”. But it decided to support and strengthen the European Union’s motion for an independent inquiry tied to the global health body at the World Health Assembly last year.
The US has called on China to release all its key data, including on possible infections before December 2019.
Butler, an honorary professor at National Centre for Epidemiology and Population Health at the Australian National University, said politics had clouded the inquiry.
“Politics is everywhere but it is particularly bad because this outbreak occurred in China,” he said. “They are extremely defensive.”
Flinders University vaccine researcher Nikolai Petrovsky said the letter was a “call to arms” to make clear there an ongoing need for information on the origins of COVID-19.
Petrovsky said there was no more public data today on the cause of the virus than there was 12 months ago. He said the coronavirus inquiry has shown there was a need for “new structures, legal agreements or treaties, or maybe even new bodies, that are empowered to act in these types of situations”.
“As the WHO themselves have said, they’re not the appropriate body to fully investigate the full extent of the potential origins of the virus. They are a public health body, they are certainly not an investigative, forensic body – that was never their mandate,” Petrovsky said.
“It is very important to understand how this pandemic started for a whole range of reasons, including how we better protect against future pandemics. To address that question we have to look at all possibilities.
“If we believe there is the possibility of some human involvement – and there could be a range of cases of that, we’re not pointing any fingers – then it needs to be on the table.”
China has repeatedly rejected concerns about the independence of the inquiry and has called for investigators to be sent to the US and Europe. “China has been open, transparent and candid in conducting origin-tracing cooperation with WHO,” said China’s Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying in January.
Overnight, the ministry called the open letter “old wine in new bottles”.
The Wall St Journal reported on Friday that Dr Peter Ben Embarek, the WHO food-safety scientist who led the team into Wuhan, had scrapped a plan to release an interim summary report on the team’s findings within weeks of returning from China. It has been almost a month since the team left Wuhan.
The WHO will instead release a final report in the coming weeks.
“By definition a summary report does not have all the details,” Ben Embarek told The Journal. “So since there [is] so much interest in this report, a summary only would not satisfy the curiosity of the readers.”
In February, the WHO-China joint team’s preliminary presentation dismissed suggestions that it could have been introduced to humans through a laboratory leak. It found it was most likely to have been transmitted through an intermediate animal host that may have been spread through wild frozen food.
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