LONDON (AP) — An expert panel set up by the World Health Organization to help investigate the origins of the coronavirus pandemic says more research is needed to determine how COVID-19 began, including a more detailed analysis of the possibility that it was a laboratory accident.
The stance marks a sharp reversal of the UN health agency’s initial assessment of the origins of the pandemic. The WHO concluded last year that it was “extremely unlikely” that COVID-19 spread to humans from a laboratory. Many scientists suspect that the coronavirus jumped to people from bats, possibly via another animal.
In a report released on Thursday, the WHO expert panel said “key pieces of data” to explain how the pandemic started were still missing. The scientists said the group would “remain open to all scientific evidence that becomes available in the future to allow full testing of all reasonable hypotheses”.
Identifying the source of disease in animals usually takes years; it took scientists about 15 years to find the bat species that were the natural reservoir for SARS, a relative of COVID-19.
The WHO expert panel also noted that since laboratory accidents in the past have triggered some outbreaks, the highly politicized theory cannot be dismissed.
Former US President Donald Trump has repeatedly speculated – without evidence – that COVID-19 was started in a Chinese lab. He also accused the WHO of ‘collusion’ with China to cover up the initial outbreak, citing the UN health agency’s continued public praise for the country.
The WHO expert panel said WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus sent two letters to senior Chinese government officials in February asking for information, including details of the first cases. humans from COVID-19 in Wuhan City; it is unclear if the Chinese responded.
Experts said no studies had been provided to the WHO to assess the possibility that COVID-19 resulted from a laboratory leak. They said their understanding of how the coronavirus emerged was limited by several factors, including that not all research presented by Chinese scientists has been published.
Jamie Metzl, who sits on an independent WHO advisory group, has suggested that the Group of Seven industrialized countries set up their own investigation into the origins of COVID, saying the WHO lacks the political authority , the scientific expertise and the independence to carry out such a critical assessment.
Metzl welcomed the WHO’s call for further investigation into the possibility of a lab leak, but said it was insufficient.
“Tragically, the Chinese government still refuses to share essential raw data and will not allow the necessary full audit of Wuhan labs,” he said. “Access to this information is critical both to understanding how this pandemic began and to preventing future pandemics.”
Expert WHO scientists said many avenues of research are needed, including studies assessing the role of wild animals as the natural reservoir of COVID-19, and environmental studies in places where the virus is thought to be. could have spread first, like Huanan seafood. Wuhan market.
In March 2021, the WHO published a report on the origins of COVID-19 following a highly choreographed visit by international scientists to China. The report concluded that the disease most likely jumped to humans from bats and there was no evidence to suggest a laboratory link.
Yet after much criticism, including from some scientists on the WHO team, WHO chief Tedros admitted it was “premature to rule out a lab leak and said he asked China to be more transparent in sharing information.
In its new report, the WHO said experts had access to data including unpublished blood samples from more than 40,000 people in Wuhan in 2019. The samples were tested for COVID-19 antibodies. None have been found, suggesting the virus was not spreading widely before it was first identified in late December this year.
WHO experts have called for numerous studies, including testing in wild animals, to determine which species might harbor COVID-19. They also said the ‘cold chain’ supply theory should be probed, China advanced the scientifically questionable theory, arguing that traces of COVID-19 on frozen packaging caused outbreaks rather than any source. national.
To determine whether COVID-19 could have been the result of a laboratory accident, WHO experts said research should be conducted “with laboratory personnel responsible for managing and implementing biosecurity and biosecurity,” saying it would provide more insight into how viruses related to COVID-19 have been managed.
China has previously called the suggestion that COVID-19 started in a lab ‘baseless’ and countered that the virus could have come from US facilities, which were also known to do research on coronaviruses in animals. The Chinese government has said it supports finding the origins of the pandemic, but other countries should be the focus.
Scientists connected to the WHO lamented in August 2021 that the search for the origins of the pandemic had stalled and the window of opportunity was “quickly closing”. They warned that collecting data that was now at least two years old was increasingly difficult.
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