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WHO Abandons Covid Origins Investigation, Saying China Isn’t Cooperating. But What About America?


The World Health Organisation (WHO) has quietly abandoned its investigation into the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic, citing ongoing challenges over attempts to conduct crucial studies in China. Nature has the story.

Researchers say they are disappointed that the investigation isn’t going ahead, because understanding how the coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 first infected people is important for preventing future outbreaks. But without access to China, there is little that the WHO can do to advance the studies, says Angela Rasmussen, a virologist at the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon, Canada. “Their hands are really tied.”

In January 2021, an international team of experts convened by the WHO travelled to Wuhan, China, where the virus that causes COVID-19 was first detected. Together with Chinese researchers, the team reviewed evidence on when and how the virus might have emerged, as part of phase one. The team released a report in March that year outlining four possible scenarios, the most likely being that SARS-CoV-2 spread from bats to people, possibly through an intermediate species. Phase one was designed to lay the groundwork for a second phase of in-depth studies to pin down exactly what happened in China and elsewhere.

But two years since that high-profile trip, the WHO has abandoned its phase-two plans. “There is no phase two,” Maria Van Kerkhove, an epidemiologist at the WHO in Geneva, Switzerland, told Nature. The WHO planned for work to be done in phases, she said, but “that plan has changed”. “The politics across the world of this really hampered progress on understanding the origins,” she said.

Researchers are undertaking some work to pin down a timeline of the virus’s initial spread. This includes efforts to trap bats in regions bordering China in search of viruses closely related to SARS-CoV-2; experimental studies to help narrow down which animals are susceptible to the virus and could be hosts; and testing of archived wastewater and blood samples collected around the world in late 2019 and early 2020. But researchers say that too much time has passed to gather some of the data needed to pinpoint where the virus originated.

Many researchers aren’t surprised the WHO’s plans have been thwarted. In early 2020, members of then US president Donald Trump’s administration made unsubstantiated claims that the virus had originated in a Chinese laboratory, and US intelligence officials later said they had begun investigations. The city of Wuhan is home to the Wuhan Institute of Virology, a high-security lab that works on coronaviruses. Chinese officials questioned whether the virus originated inside the country’s borders.

In the midst of simmering hostility between the two superpowers, WHO member states requested in May 2020 that the agency put together a science-led effort to identify how the pandemic started. Although China agreed to the mission, tensions were high by the time the WHO group left for Wuhan, and engagement with China quickly unravelled after the group returned.

In its March 2021 report, the team concluded that it was “extremely unlikely” that the virus accidentally escaped from a laboratory. But the inclusion of the lab-incident scenario in the final report was a key point of contention for Chinese researchers and officials, says Dominic Dwyer, a virologist at New South Wales Health Pathology in Sydney, who was a member of the WHO team.

That July, the WHO sent a circular to member states outlining how it planned to advance origins studies. Proposed steps included assessing wild-animal markets in and around Wuhan and the farms that supplied those markets, as well as audits of labs in the area where the first cases were identified.

But Chinese officials rejected the WHO’s plans, taking particular issue with the proposal to investigate lab breaches. Zhao Lijian, the spokesperson for China’s foreign ministry, said the WHO proposal was not agreed by all member states, and that the second phase should not focus on pathways the mission report had already deemed extremely unlikely.

The Nature report adds that outside the formal WHO process some studies have gone ahead. In May 2022, researchers in China published the results of an analysis of donor blood supplied to the Wuhan Blood Centre before December 2019. After screening more than 88,000 samples collected between September 1st and December 31st 2019, they did not find any SARS-CoV-2-blocking antibodies in the samples (though did find some non-neutralising antibodies, which they imply are false positives due to cross-reaction or other issues). A second study, by the Chinese CDC in February 2022, looked at samples collected at the Huanan wet market in January and February 2020 and found evidence of the virus among humans but not among animals, confirming the early outbreak but casting doubt on the idea of a zoonotic spillover event at the market.

We may not be inclined to believe these Chinese findings. But we should note that they are more than the U.S. has managed to put out in the same period. The U.S. published one study of archived Red Cross blood in November 2020, which found 39 antibody-positive serum samples (2%) collected December 13th-16th 2019 in California, Washington and Oregon. No further studies of early spread in America have appeared. On this evidence, of course, the virus is more likely to have been circulating in the U.S. than Wuhan during autumn 2019. Certainly, the Wuhan data may not be trustworthy, or the U.S. data may be mistaken. But clearly there is good reason to look into what was going on in America as well as China. Note that we still don’t have a single wastewater study from the U.S. to give an indication of when in 2019 the virus may have begun circulating in different parts of the country (to be fair, we also don’t have any wastewater studies from China). A wastewater study from Brazil turned positive as of November 27th 2019, suggesting extensive community spread in the Americas during that month.

We also still have no idea what U.S. scientists were working on in relation to SARS-like viruses at the onset of the pandemic. Yet we know that in collaborative coronavirus projects with the Wuhan Institute of Virology, the genetic engineering of the virus was typically stated to be done in the U.S., not China. We also know that Jeffrey Sachs disbanded the Covid origins taskforce which formed part of the Lancet Covid commission he was chairing because he perceived severe conflicts of interest and a basic lack of cooperation from U.S. scientists.

Concerns about a U.S. cover-up are growing. The latest senior figure to call for an investigation into the role of the U.S. in the origin of the virus is Matt Pottinger, the Deputy National Security Adviser at the start of the pandemic, who recently wrote in the Wall Street Journal that “China hasn’t been the only problem”.

In the early days of the pandemic, a small group of Western virologists came together to consider the pandemic’s origin. Emails that eventually came to light revealed their plan to push the public conversation away from the lab-accident hypothesis and toward the natural-origins explanation. In a now infamous February 2020 letter in the Lancet, and in an equally problematic letter in Nature Medicine the next month, some of these scientists labelled any questions about a possible lab origin as “conspiracy theories”, even though they lacked evidence to dismiss the lab-leak hypothesis.

But in September 2021, a leaked Defense Department document revealed that some of the same scientists had worked together, along with the Wuhan Institute of Virology, on a 2018 proposal to the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. Their project? Genetically engineering rare gain-of-function features, called furin cleavage sites, into SARS-like viruses in their possession.

To its credit, DARPA didn’t fund that research, but it was highly significant — or spectacularly coincidental — that the SARS-CoV-2 virus, containing this precise feature never-before-seen in any SARS-like virus, began infecting people in Wuhan the next year. Scientists who had called the lab-leak hypothesis a conspiracy had failed to disclose that the lethal virus sweeping the world was eerily similar to the one they had wanted to create.

China’s systematic efforts to block meaningful investigation doesn’t mean that the U.S. should throw up its arms. In fact, both the Trump and Biden administrations have taken action to dig further. The Trump administration began asking questions internally. Early in his tenure, President Biden also authorised a limited, 90-day review of this issue by America’s intelligence agencies. It’s fair to say that both administrations did something and that neither has done enough.

Earlier this year, an international group of scientists and former national security officials — including us — signed an open letter detailing some of the failures of scientific journals and news organisations and calling for greater accountability. What we now need are bipartisan, evidence-based hearings asking the toughest questions about the pandemic’s origins. Congress must carefully look at China’s transgressions as well as our own shortcomings.

The obfuscation by the Chinese is obviously very poor form and only increases suspicions they are hiding something. However, what the Nature report – and the WHO, based on that report – fail to acknowledge is that we don’t need Chinese cooperation to investigate what U.S. scientists and officials can tell us about the origin of the virus and early spread in America. Investigating this properly should have begun long ago, and even now it is not too late. The politicians need to compel the scientists and officials to reveal what they know.

February 14, 2023 - Posted by | Deception, Science and Pseudo-Science | , ,

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