A group of World Health Organization scientists says the theory that the coronavirus could have escaped from a Wuhan lab needs “further investigations”— though data from China is still missing.
In its first preliminary report Thursday, the Scientific Advisory Group for the Origins of Novel Pathogens stressed that it had no conclusive findings on the origins of worst global pandemic in a century.
“There are key pieces of data that are not yet available for a complete understanding of how the COVID-19 pandemic began,” the expert said in their report, stressing that further studies are needed “to follow up on several gaps in our knowledge,” according to Agence France-Presse.
The WHO panel’s report said all available data pointed to the novel coronavirus probably coming from animals, likely bats, a similar conclusion to the U.N. agency’s work after a 2021 trip to China, where the first cases were reported in December 2019.
“The strongest evidence is still around zoonotic transmission,” SAGO Chairwoman Marietjie Venter said Thursday, although the original host, intermediate hosts or how the virus jumped to humans are still unknown.
The mission had determined that the theory that the virus may have escaped from a lab was “extremely unlikely,” though the SAGO team stressed that further study is needed.
“It remains important to consider all reasonable scientific data that is available either through published or other official sources to evaluate the possibility of the introduction of SARS-CoV-2 into the human population through a laboratory incident,” the report said.
But SAGO also acknowledged that three members of the team — from China, Russia and Brazil — objected to including the recommendation.
Venter told reporters it was important to be open to various theories.
“Having it in the report doesn’t say that that’s definitely what we think it is,” she said, stressing that it merely means “we are open to scientific data… so if anything comes up that’s new, we will not ignore it.”
Co-chair Jean-Claude Manuguerra stressed that so far there had been no real investigation into the lab leak theory.
“We need to be open-minded and cover all the hypotheses, including that one,” Manuguerra said.
The experts said access was needed to staff and data from labs to assess biosafety and biosecurity practices, but this could be tricky, especially in the case of China, which has pushed back against suggestions of new missions to the country.
“Understanding the origins of the virus is very important scientifically, to prevent future epidemics and pandemics. But morally, we also owe it to all those who have suffered and died, and their families,” WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said Thursday.
“All hypotheses must remain on the table until we have evidence that enables us to rule certain hypotheses in or out,” he said, adding that all countries, particularly China, should be transparent and cooperative by sharing data without governmental interference.
For its report, SAGO reviewed available research but did not conduct its own investigation.
Maria Van Kerkhove, a senior WHO official on the SAGO secretariat, said the WHO will support all ongoing efforts to better understand how the pandemic began.
“We owe it to ourselves, we owe to the millions of people who died and the billions of people who were infected,” she told reporters.
Last year, a classified US intelligence report delivered to President Joe Biden also was inconclusive about the theories, including the widely-pushed one that the deadly bug jumped from animals to humans.
The intelligence community was unable to firmly determine whether the virus had jumped to humans via bats or escaped a research facility in the central Chinese city.
With Post wires