The World Health Organisation’s conclusion about the likely origin of coronavirus was reached via a show of hands among the team of experts, many of whom work for the Chinese government – which had already ruled out the lab leak hypothesis – and have not been publicly identified by Beijing.
Fresh details of the WHO team’s four-week joint study in Wuhan, which concluded last month that it was “extremely unlikely” the virus came from a lab, have been revealed in a Wall Street Journal investigation published on Wednesday.
The lengthy article highlights the extent of the control Chinese authorities exerted over the WHO investigation, including securing veto rights over participants, and calls into question the reliability of the team’s findings ahead of their final report expected to be published next week.
The Wall Street Journal story – which reconstructs how the probe unfolded based on interviews with members of the international team, WHO staff, government officials, diplomats and scientists – paints a picture of a highly compromised investigation, carefully stage-managed by the Chinese Communist Party.
“It soon became evident to foreign officials and scientists tracking the mission that the team’s itinerary was partly designed to bolster China’s official narrative that the government moved swiftly to control the virus,” the newspaper wrote.
“The team’s first visit was to a hospital where they met a doctor Beijing feted as the first to raise alarms through official channels about an outbreak of unknown pneumonia. The next day, after another hospital visit, the team went to an exhibition commemorating Chinese authorities’ early ‘decisive victory in the battle’ against the virus, paying tribute to President Xi’s leadership.”
Members of the international 13-strong WHO delegation told the paper that it became clear their Chinese counterparts would only be sharing their analysis, and not their raw data.
The Chinese experts said they had analysed 76,000 medical records from Wuhan, where the virus first emerged in late 2019, pinpointing 92 hospitalised patients from October, November and December 2019 whose symptoms suggested they may have had COVID-19.
But China said it had retested those patients for COVID-19 antibodies, and all came up negative.
The international team were reportedly perplexed at the small number, given the virus’ primary symptoms of fever and persistent cough were common enough that vastly more potential cases – somewhere in the order of 1000 – should have been identified and tested in a province of nearly 60 million people.
They also did not understand why China had waited until a few weeks before the international team arrived to test the patients for antibodies, when they may have faded to undetectable levels.
When they asked for the raw, anonymised data, China refused.
“Chinese participants countered with research indicating the virus might have been circulating in other countries in late November and December, and suggested the WHO should study whether the pandemic originated outside China, team members said,” according to The Wall Street Journal.
US EXPERT ‘CONFLICTED’
The story reveals that none of the three experts the US government recommended to the WHO for inclusion on the team even received a phone call.
Instead, the only US representation was Dr Peter Daszak, an expert in animal-to-human virus transmission whose work with a New York-based non-profit had raised concerns among US officials and scientists about a potential conflict of interest.
Dr Daszak is the president of EcoHealth Alliance, which has in the past provided funding to the Wuhan Institute of Virology – the controversial lab pinpointed by the Trump administration as the likely source of the outbreak.
Prior to joining the WHO team, Dr Daszak had publicly dismissed the possibility as a “conspiracy” theory.
Dr Daszak told The Wall Street Journal he had provided a conflict-of-interest statement to WHO which outlined his work with the Wuhan lab. “I’m known to WHO, and I’m known for my work on this,” he said. “I recognised the historical importance of it and the value I would be able to bring to it.”
According to The Wall Street Journal, the international team were allowed to visit the Wuhan Institute of Virology for three hours on February 3, where they met with Shi Zhengli – the virologist dubbed “bat woman” who last year insisted there was no way the virus escaped from her “world-class lab”.
The team was given presentations about the lab’s research, safety procedures and the health of staff, and were able to asks questions.
In September 2019, the Wuhan Institute of Virology deleted a public database containing information on at least 16,000 virus samples.
Dr Daszak said when he asked why, Dr Shi responded that they had been forced to take it down after about 3000 hacking attempts.
In an online panel discussion earlier this month, Dr Daszak said it was “absolutely reasonable” that the database was taken offline and revealed the team did not request to see it because he personally vouched for the lab based on his group’s previous collaboration, stating that it was not relevant to the origins of the pandemic.
“A lot of this work is work that has been conducted with EcoHealth Alliance. I’m also part of those data and we do basically know what’s in those databases … I got to talk with both sides about the work we’ve done with Wuhan Institute of Virology and explained what’s there.”
Dr Daszak said there was “no evidence of viruses closer to SARS-CoV-2 than RaTG13 in those databases”, referring to a bat coronavirus similar to the virus that causes COVID-19.
Last year, Rutgers University professor of chemical biology Richard H. Ebright responded on Twitter to Dr Daszak’s claim that he had “no conflicts of interest” related to his work with the Wuhan lab.
“It would be hard to imagine a more brazen lie,” Prof Ebright wrote.
SHOW OF HANDS
On February 8, The Wall Street Journal reports, the international team sat at rows of tables one side of a hotel conference room, with their Chinese counterparts facing them on the other side.
To narrow down their conclusions, the assembled experts organised a show of hands to rank each of the four main hypotheses – direct animal-to-human transmission, transmission via an intermediate animal, leak from a lab, or via imported frozen food products – on a scale from “extremely unlikely” to “very likely”.
The frozen food hypothesis, which has been pushed by Chinese authorities claiming the virus started overseas and was brought into China, was ranked the second most likely scenario.
The decision to rank the lab leak theory “extremely unlikely” was unanimous, according to team members.
The following day, the team’s leader, Dr Peter Ben Embarek, announced their findings at a press conference.
“Our initial findings suggest that the introduction through an intermediary host species is the most likely pathway and one that will require more studies and more specific targeted research,” he said.
“Similarly and connected to this hypothesis is also the one including the possibility of transmission through the trade of frozen cold-chain products … The hypothesis of a direct spill-over from an original animal source into the human population is also a possible pathway and is also generating recommendation for future studies.”
Dr Ben Embarek said the team’s findings suggested “that the laboratory incident hypothesis is extremely unlikely to explain introduction of the virus into the human population and therefore is not a hypothesis that will imply to suggest future studies into our work to support our future work into the understanding of the origin of the virus”.
Since leaving China, however, some members of the team have clarified that they lacked the access, authority or expertise – such as would be required in weapons or biowarfare inspections – to conduct a thorough investigation into the lab leak theory.
“We didn’t see the actual data there,” Australian microbiologist Dr Dominic Dwyer told The Wall Street Journal.
“It would be nice to have seen that, particularly around the testing of their staff and so on. But that didn’t come through. They could still provide that.”