WHO inquiry into COVID-19 origins ‘compromised by politics’, say scientists awaiting overdue report

The joint team didn’t have the mandate, independence, or accesses required to perform a full and unrestricted investigation, they wrote.

WHO inquiry into COVID-19 origins 'compromised by politics', say scientists awaiting overdue report

Members of the WHO team Marion Koopmans (R) and Peter Ben Embarek (C) say farewell to their Chinese counterpart Liang Wannian (L), after a WHO-China Joint Study Press Conference held at the end of the WHO mission in Wuhan, on 9 Feb 2021. AP

A team of experts from the World Health Organisation (WHO) on a mission to trace the origins of the COVID-19 epidemic, intend to scrap an eagerly-awaited interim report of their mission to China. This comes amid mounting tensions between Beijing and Washington over the investigation, along with an open letter from an international group of scientists who are demanding for a new probe, according to a Wall Street Journal report. The open letter, signed by 26 distinguished academics from around the world, outlines that the WHO-led investigative report was compromised by the inherent limitations of operating under the control of Chinese authorities.

The scientists elaborate on why the investigation report might be perceived as unreliable by the scientific community, saying, “the joint team did not have the mandate, the independence, or the necessary accesses” to perform a full and unrestricted investigation into the many SARS-CoV-2 origin hypotheses proposed. These theories including a natural spillover from an animal source, as well as a laboratory/research-related incident in which the pathogen escaped a controlled setting.

The letter goes on to point out nine fundamental problems that undermine the investigation. The joint investigation “falls short of the mark”, the scientists said, adding that it was essential for the international community that a full and unrestricted investigation be organized. The letter describes a detailed layout of what the investigation ought to address – from the multidisciplinary nature of the investigating team to the range of reports they should have unrestricted access to.  The WHO being an international agency that relies on the collaboration of its member states, the scientists said, is limited in what it can achieve in an investigation of this kind.

WHO inquiry into COVID19 origins compromised by politics say scientists awaiting overdue report

Peter Ben Embarek, of the World Health Organization team holds up a chart showing pathways of transmission of the virus during a joint press conference held at the end of the WHO mission in Wuhan in central China’s Hubei province on Tuesday, 9 February 2021. Image: AP

Highlighting the scale and impact that COVID-19 has had on people’s lives and livelihoods, economies, education and health care, the researchers elaborated on the need for an “absolutely thorough and credible” investigation into the origins of the pandemic. Without it, the world runs a risk of being unprepared for a possibly worse pandemic in the future, they said.

No summary report has been published by the WHO team so far. On the contrary, plans being considered including scrapping the interim report altogether, according to food-safety scientist Peter Ben Embarek, who is leading the investigation team. Without specifying when, Embarek said that a summary can be expected “soon”, along with the full and final report “in coming weeks… [that] will include key findings”.

WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus announced in a briefing on 12 February that an interim report would be released by the team, briefly summarizing the Wuhan mission in a week or two, with a full report due several weeks later.

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