Days after a joint team of the World Health Organisation (WHO) and Chinese expert mission claimed that Coronavirus did not exist in China’s Wuhan province before December 2019, a group of scientists have written an open letter[pdf] on Thursday (March 4) to the UN body for ‘compromising the scientific validity of the investigation.’
As per the letter, a total of 26 signatories had demanded a ‘full and unrestricted probe’ into the origins of the Wuhan Coronavirus. The scientists lamented that the virus’s origin remains unknown even after a year of the outbreak of the pandemic. “We believe it essential that all hypotheses about the origins of the pandemic are thoroughly examined and full access to all necessary resources be provided without regard to political or other sensitivities,” they opined.
“Based on our analysis, and as confirmed by the global study convened by the World Health Organization (WHO) and Chinese authorities, there is as yet no evidence demonstrating a fully natural origin of this virus”, the scientists added. Further pointing out the problems, the letter said that they want to raise public awareness about the fact that half of the team comprised of Chinese citizens whose scientific independence might be limited in nature.
Key flaws with the joint WHO-Chinese report on Coronavirus origins
The scientists argued that the international WHO team primarily relied on the information passed on by Chinese authorities and that the joint report required the approval of both teams. The letter emphasised that the joint team lacked the required access, mandate and independence to come to a definitive conclusion about the origins of the Coronavirus. Although the report was prepared by the joint team, several media houses presented it as an independent probe by ‘WHO itself’.
The scientists noted that the terms of reference that determined the objectives, responsibilities and duties of the join team were marred with ‘considerable delay’ and lack of transparency. They pointed out that the actual ‘field work’ was done by the Chinese side while the results were only communicated to the WHO team for review and discussion. “…Reports resulting from this process will ultimately represent a necessary compromise based partly on political and other limitations,” they said.
Furthermore, they said that the selection criteria for the WHO team focussed primarily on zoonosis and public health instead of those with forensic skills required for investigation. Moreover, the letter said that ‘conflict of interest’ between the team members was not accounted for during the selection. “The team did not have the mandate or access to granular lab records, data, and personnel to an extent that would allow them to confidently evaluate the various hypotheses,” it added.
Pointing out the lack of ‘scientific objectivity’, the scientists reiterated, “The international members of the joint team, by their own admission, have often relied on verbal assurances given to them by their Chinese counterparts rather than independent investigation, particularly regarding the possibility of a lab or research-related accident.”
Demand for a comprehensive independent probe into Coronavirus origins
The letter signed by the group of scientists has demanded a ‘full and unrestricted investigation’ by a ‘truly independent team’ with no conflicts of interests. They said that the investigating team must include professionals from various disciplines including wildlife experts, public health specialists, forensic investigators, biosafety, epidemiologists, virologists, and biosecurity experts. The letter added that the team members must have an understanding of Chinese culture and language to interpret behaviours.
The scientists laid down key underlying principles for conducting the study, by taking various possible scenarios into consideration. They emphasised the need for a common forensic investigation approach, which is based on ‘on-ground investigation’, ‘desk-based analyst work’, ‘open-source intelligence’, and a review of previous zoonosis events and lab accidents. They pointed out that the WHO team must have unrestricted access to key Wuhan markets, Chinese labs, hospital records from 2019, pathogen sampling sites, lab employees.
The letter also added that the international team members must have access to relevant records including environmental reports, inspection reports, maintenance logs, lab experiment logs, raw sequence reads, animal breeding records and so on. “Deploy a secure reporting channel for people to confidentially contribute information, wherever they are based, without fear of punishment or retribution,” it said.
“As strong supporters of the WHO and its mission, we believe it must be made clear that any findings of the joint committee, while potentially useful to a limited extent, represent neither the official position of the WHO nor the result of an unrestricted, independent investigation. For this reason, we believe it is essential that the contours of a full and unrestricted investigation be outlined to set a standard against which current and future efforts can be evaluated,” the letter concluded.
WHO-Chinese team claim Coronavirus did not originate in China
In a press briefing last month, Liang Wannian, head of the Chinese expert mission, claimed that there was “not enough evidence” to determine if the virus had spread in the city prior to December 2019. “There is no indication of the transmission of the Sars-Cov-2 in the population of the period before Dec 2019,” Wannian said.
Ben Embarek of the WHO team that collaborated with the Chinese expert mission said that the focus of the study was to determine if coronavirus had ‘previous history’ and was in circulation before December 2019.In an attempt to deflect the blame of endowing the world with a deadly contagion, the Chinese expert even suggested that the coronavirus might have originated outside China.
The Chinese Health Commission expert also contended that the coronavirus which causes COVID-19 could have been circulating in other regions before it was detected in the central Chinese city of Wuhan at the end of 2019. The WHO scientists also asserted that the global health body’s mission to China to probe the origins of the coronavirus has failed to detect the animal source. However, ever since the pandemic swept the globe, scores of scientists and epidemiologists have consistently claimed that the coronavirus might have originated in bats and could have jumped to humans via another mammal.
Wannian said the transmission from animals was the likely route of the emergence of the infection but so far “the reservoir hosts remain to be identified”. He also added that the studies have demonstrated that the virus could be carried long-distance on cold chain products, alluding to the possible importation of the virus—a hypothesis vigorously peddled by China after it was blamed for the lack of transparency and its shoddy handling of the initial outbreak.