A group of 14 countries has raised concerns about a new report by the World Health Organization (WHO) on the origin of the corona virus, citing delays and inaccessibility of data, and the agency’s own head has called for further investigation into a theory that the explosion was the result of a laboratory leak.
The widely-anticipated study on Tuesday was based on the agency’s fact-finding mission to the Chinese city of Wuhan, where the novel virus was first detected.
After a four-week trip, a WHO panel of 17 international experts concluded in a report that COVID-19 was “extremely unlikely” to emerge from a laboratory leak that was first advanced by the United States last year. China has vehemently denied such allegations.
Instead, scientists said the virus was introduced to humans through an intermediate host “highly possible” and that it was “possible” for the virus to spread from animals to humans.
Later on Tuesday, 14 countries, including the United States, Australia, Canada, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia and Israel, said in a statement that they “fully” support the World Health Organization’s efforts to end the epidemic. It “started and spread”.
But “the international expert study on the origin of the SARS-CoV-2 virus has been significantly delayed and we need to voice our shared concerns about the lack of access to complete, original data and models,” they added.
Japan, Latvia, Lithuania, Norway, the Republic of Korea, Slovenia and the United Kingdom are among the countries that have signed the report.
Separately on Tuesday, WHO Director-General Tetros Adanom Capreius called for further research to achieve “more robust results”.
“I do not believe this assessment is comprehensive enough,” he told a news conference on Tuesday.
“Although the panel has concluded that a laboratory leak is a very low hypothesis, it requires further investigation, and with additional work involving expert experts, I am prepared to use it,” Tetros added.
China’s foreign ministry has faced criticism from the head of the World Health Organization, saying Beijing has fully demonstrated its “openness, transparency and responsible approach”.
“The politicization of this issue will severely hamper global cooperation in the study of the origin, affect cooperation against the epidemic and claim more lives,” the ministry said in a statement.
Meanwhile, a senior Chinese health official said there was no basis for the allegations against China.
Liang Vannian, co-chair of the joint study of the origins of China’s COVID-19 and the WHO released on Tuesday, told reporters that Chinese and international researchers can access the same data.
He said the Chinese part of the joint research was now complete and the world needed to further explore the early occurrence of COVID-19 outside China in the next phase of research on the origin of the epidemic.
The EU called the report an “effective first step” and highlighted the “need for further action”, urging “relevant authorities” to assist, but did not name China.
Peter Ben Embarek, chairman of the study group that visited China to discuss its findings, said the report was “not a sustainable product, but an energetic one” and that there would be new analysis.
So far, there is no evidence that a laboratory in Wuhan, a city housing virology facility, may have been involved in the leak.
“This is not impossible,” he said, adding that accidents in laboratories have already occurred in the past. “But I couldn’t hear or see anything that came to a different conclusion,” he said.
The inability of the WHO to further determine where or how the virus began to spread among the population is a matter of continuing tensions over how the epidemic began – whether China helped in the efforts to find out or whether the United States was obstructing them as blamed.
Embrac said the committee members faced political pressure “from all sides,” but stressed: “We have never been pressured to remove key elements in our report.”
He said, “We do not have full access to all the source data we wanted, which has been put forward as a recommendation for future research.”