WASHINGTON — The World Health Organization is denying a report made by a top scientific journal that it had “quietly shelved” an investigation into the origins of the coronavirus.
But that denial itself only highlighted the challenges to such an investigation, especially given China’s continued reluctance to allow access to sites that could hold clues to how the pandemic began.
The controversy began with a report published on Tuesday by the prestigious scientific journal Nature: “WHO abandons plans for crucial second phase of COVID-origins investigation.” There would apparently be no follow-up to the WHO’s spring 2021 report on how the pandemic began, the article said, because of an inability to “conduct crucial studies in China.”
The report was supposed to be the first phase of the inquiry. But as WHO infectious disease expert Maria Van Kerkhove, who leads the global agency’s pandemic response, told Nature, “There is no phase two.”
WHO officials, however, quickly protested that the investigation had not been called off. The report was “completely misleading,” WHO spokesman Tarik Jašarević told Yahoo News in an email on Wednesday.
The row highlights how little remains known of how SARS-CoV-2 originated — a world-changing event that remains a mystery three years after the fact. Because so much time has elapsed, the hotly debated question of whether the pathogen originated in a market stall or on a laboratory table may remain forever unresolved, as especially as much of the world (including China) seeks to move beyond the pandemic.
Answers have been difficult to come by in large part because Chinese authorities have steadfastly resisted giving Western researchers the access they have been requesting since early 2020.
In her comments to Nature, Van Kerkhove acknowledged a “deep frustration” about how difficult it had been to reestablish trust with Chinese counterparts, who have grown skeptical of outside investigators over the course of the three-year battle against COVID-19.
In the U.S., a new Republican majority in the House of Representatives has vowed to question Dr. Anthony Fauci, the recently retired immunologist, and other top officials, about what they may have known — and what they may have missed — about risky research that some believe could have led to the pandemic’s start.
Last month, the inspector general of the Department of Health and Human Services faulted the National Institutes of Health for not providing sufficient oversight of U.S. funds supporting research at the Wuhan Institute of Virology via an intermediate organization, the New York-based EcoHealth Alliance.
EcoHealth Alliance head Peter Daszak was among the strongest critics of the lab-leak hypothesis, even as he concealed his own ties to Chinese researchers. He controversially served on the WHO team that traveled to Wuhan in early 2021 during the first phase of the investigation.
WHO spokesman Jašarević told Yahoo News this week that while there would indeed not be a “phase two” of the original coronavirus investigation, a WHO panel called the Scientific Advisory Group for the Origins on Novel Pathogens (SAGO), would continue looking for answers on how the pandemic had begun.
Even so, Jašarević acknowledged that limitations remained. “We have repeatedly and publicly said that the origin needs investigating,” he wrote, “and China must provide access and info for this to happen — and if this doesn’t happen, efforts to understand the origins will remain rather stymied.”
Those difficulties were partly due, Nature suggested, because then-President Donald Trump had made “unsubstantiated claims” that the virus originated in a Chinese laboratory.
Trump’s claims were initially denounced as xenophobic and conspiratorial, but have since gained support as experts gradually acknowledged that the so-called lab-leak hypothesis is a plausible explanation. The scientific consensus, however, generally backs the idea that COVID-19 emerged via zoonosis, or animal-to-human transmission, as did earlier viruses including HIV and Ebola.
“The politics across the world of this really hampered progress on understanding the origins,” Van Kerkhove lamented in her interview with Nature.
Other experts quoted in the article blamed the West for maligning China and trafficking in conspiracy theories. One of those experts, the outspoken virologist Angela Rasmussen, subsequently summed up her thoughts on Twitter. “By demonizing and alienating colleagues in China instead of building collaborative trust, this is what the relentlessly toxic lab leak conspiracy machine has yielded: The complete and total disintegration of any meaningful further investigation into the origins of SARS-CoV-2,” she wrote.
The first phase of the WHO investigation included what is still the only authorized visit by Western researchers to Wuhan, the Chinese city where the pandemic is near-universally believed to have begun.
But the resulting report was criticized for not contemplating more seriously the hypothesis that the virus originated in a laboratory as a result of an accident in the midst of controversial “gain of function” research that boosts pathogens in order to study how they may evolve in nature.
Several months later, WHO Director Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus acknowledged that it was “premature” to rule out the lab-leak hypothesis.
Tuesday’s article in Nature initially seemed like a concession of defeat, leading to renewed criticism of WHO’s efforts to press China for more information on the research it had been conducting in Wuhan.
Richard Ebright, a Rutgers microbiologist, charged WHO on Twitter with “failing — utterly — in its responsibility to the global public,” describing its initial efforts as “a failed simulacrum of an investigation.”
Wednesday afternoon saw a more forceful denial from Van Kerkhove herself, in what appeared to be a recognition by WHO officials that they had stumbled into a public relations firestorm. During a briefing with members of the press, she described the Nature article as an “error in reporting” that misrepresented her words. “In a sense, Phase 2 became SAGO,” which she described as “our best effort to move this work forward.”
Van Kerkhove also said WHO would continue to press China to be more forthcoming with on-the-ground access. “We continue to ask for more cooperation and collaboration with our colleagues in China to advance studies that need to take place in China,” she said during the briefing.
“We haven’t abandoned any plans. We haven’t stopped any work,” she said, even though she acknowledged that the origins investigation was becoming “increasingly difficult” because of how much time had elapsed since the first cases of the coronavirus were recorded in China more than three years ago.
Yet Nature stood by the initial article. “Nature’s journalists are in discussion with the World Health Organization regarding their concerns about our article. We are committed to upholding the highest standards in journalism and take accuracy very seriously,” Nature communications director Lisa Boucher told Yahoo News.
Skeptics saw the entire back-and-forth as evidence of confused priorities. “The article, and the response to it, seems to provide little clarity about who’s calling the shots and why they’re calling those shots,” mathematical biologist Alex Washburne wrote to Yahoo News in a text message.
China’s reluctance to open its laboratories to Western inspectors is a sign to some that a cover-up is in the works, Washburne added. “If this didn’t come from a lab in China, then China would surely be able to rule out its own labs’ involvement,” Washburne told Yahoo News. “I can’t imagine any good reason for China to not share that information.”
Washburne was also troubled when WHO appointed Jeremy Farrar as its chief scientist late last month.
Farrar had been one of several signatories to a letter — authored by Daszak and circulated to prominent medical and public health experts — published in the Lancet in the early days of the pandemic expressing “solidarity with all scientists and health professionals in China.”
The letter strongly condemned the notion that the coronavirus could have come from a laboratory. “We stand together to strongly condemn conspiracy theories suggesting that COVID-19 does not have a natural origin,” the letter said.
The Lancet later appended a disclosure describing Daszak’s ties to China.