WHO Investigators to Scrap Plans for Interim Report on Probe of Covid-19 Origins

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BEIJING—A World Health Organization team investigating the origins of Covid-19 is planning to scrap an interim report on its recent mission to China amid mounting tensions between Beijing and Washington over the investigation and an appeal from one international group of scientists for a new probe.

The group of two dozen scientists is calling in an open letter on Thursday for a new international inquiry. They say the WHO team that last month completed a mission to Wuhan—the Chinese city where the first known cases were found—had insufficient access to adequately investigate possible sources of the new coronavirus, including whether it slipped from a laboratory.

Their appeal comes as the U.S.—which recently reversed a decision to leave the WHO—lobbies for greater transparency in the investigation, saying it is waiting to scrutinize the report on the Wuhan mission, and urging China to release all relevant data, including on the first confirmed infections in December 2019, and potential earlier ones.

Beijing, meanwhile, is pressing for similar WHO-led missions to other countries, including the U.S., to investigate whether the virus could have originated outside China and spread to Wuhan via frozen food packaging.

WHO chief

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus

said on Feb. 12 that the team would release an interim report briefly summarizing the Wuhan mission, possibly the following week, with a full report coming weeks later. But that summary report has yet to be published and the WHO team is now scrapping that plan, said Peter Ben Embarek, the food-safety scientist who led the team. The WHO team plans to publish a summary along with the full, final report, he said. That final report “will be published in coming weeks and will include key findings,” a WHO spokesman said.

Peter Ben Embarek, who led the WHO team, visited Wuhan’s Huanan food market on Jan. 31.



Photo:

thomas peter/Reuters

“By definition a summary report does not have all the details,” said Dr. Ben Embarek. “So since there [is] so much interest in this report, a summary only would not satisfy the curiosity of the readers.”

The delay in publishing the findings and recommendations from the Wuhan mission, conducted jointly with Chinese scientists and officials who will have to approve any report, comes against a backdrop of continued political and scientific controversy surrounding the search for the origins of the pandemic.

China’s foreign ministry described the open letter as “old wine in new bottles” that assumed guilt and lacked scientific credibility, and said the Wuhan mission concluded that a laboratory origin was “extremely unlikely” and not worth further research. Neither the foreign ministry nor China’s national health commission responded to requests for comment on the Wuhan mission report.

According to an advance copy of the open letter, the group of 26 scientists and other experts in areas including virology, zoology and microbiology said that it was “all but impossible” for the WHO team to conduct a full investigation, and that any report was likely to involve political compromises as it had to be approved by the Chinese side.

The World Health Organization’s mission to Wuhan said the coronavirus most likely spread naturally to humans through an animal. WSJ’s Jeremy Page reports on what scientists learned during their weekslong investigation. Photo: Thomas Peter/Reuters

A credible investigation required, among other things, confidential interviews and fuller access to hospital records of confirmed and potential Chinese coronavirus cases in late 2019, when the outbreak was first identified in Wuhan, said the letter signed by experts from France, the U.S., India, Australia and other countries.

Investigators should also be allowed to view records including maintenance, personnel, animal breeding and experiment logs from all laboratories working with coronaviruses, the letter said.

“We cannot afford an investigation into the origins of the pandemic that is anything less than absolutely thorough and credible,” the letter said. “Efforts to date do not constitute a thorough, credible, and transparent investigation.”

Guards stand in front of Wuhan’s Jinyintan Hospital during a visit by members of the WHO team on Jan. 30.



Photo:

hector retamal/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

The appeal is unlikely to gain traction, as any future probes would require…



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