Addressing the World Health Assembly on Tuesday, US Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra said future studies into the origins of the Covid-19 pandemic needed to be transparent and respect the independence of scientists.
“Phase 2 of the Covid origins study must be launched with terms of reference that are transparent, science-based, and give international experts the independence to fully assess the source of the virus and the early days of the outbreak,” Becerra said.
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While he did not refer directly to China, Beccera’s call was seen as veiled criticism of the country’s conduct during the first phase of the WHO’s origins mission in the central Chinese city of Wuhan, where the coronavirus was first detected.
That investigation – conducted jointly by the World Health Organization and Chinese authorities – began in January after months of discussion between Beijing and the WHO on the scope of the study, from the scientists appointed to the scenarios under consideration.
Jamie Metzl, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council in Washington, said in March that those terms of reference did not give a fair hearing to the theory that the pandemic began with a leak from the Wuhan Institute of Virology, which has researched bat coronaviruses.
“When the terms of reference of the joint investigation of the WHO-appointed independent committee and the Chinese government were announced, it raised a lot of questions about whether there would be the willingness and desire to fully investigate all the hypotheses, including the possibility of a lab leak,” said Metzl, who is a member of a WHO advisory committee on genome editing.
Metzl is one of a number of researchers calling for a full investigation into the possibility that the outbreak in Wuhan was not caused by a natural spillover.
International scientists who have worked with laboratories in Wuhan have dismissed the idea as a conspiracy theory.
Peter Ben Embarek, co-leader of the WHO mission to Wuhan, said on February 9 that the team concluded the lab leak hypothesis was “extremely unlikely”, meaning it would not be pursued in future studies by the team.
On Monday, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian again rejected the lab leak theory, saying there was “zero infection” at the Wuhan lab and the WHO origin investigators had unfettered access for their research.
“The team of experts visited all the places they wanted to visit, interviewed anyone they asked for, and were satisfied with the results,” Zhao said.
But in a letter published in the journal Science on May 14, 18 scientists, including leading virologists, said the WHO-China report did not give “balanced consideration” to the lab leak theory.
“Only four of the 313 pages of the report and its annexes addressed the possibility of a laboratory accident,” the scientists said.
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