Security personnel keep watch outside the Wuhan Institute of Virology during a visit by the WHO team tasked with investigating the origins of the coronavirus disease in Wuhan, Hubei Province, China, February 3, 2021. (Thomas Peter/Reuters)

The World Health Organization’s investigation into the origins of COVID is an international scandal. The global health body has released a joint report with the Chinese government on its findings about the disease, following a WHO mission to China in February, and it only confirms the grave doubts harbored by outside observers regarding the panel’s impartiality.

The 17 WHO-appointed investigators and 17 Chinese experts who authored the study dismiss out of hand as “extremely unlikely” the lab theory of COVID’s origin — the idea, specifically, that it leaked from the Wuhan Institute of Virology, which is the highest-level-security lab in China (biosafety level four) and one known to have experimented with coronaviruses carried by bats. They instead assert that the virus most likely reached humans either directly from bats or from bats via other small mammals.

The truth is that each of these theories is just that — a theory, unsupported yet by direct, material evidence. But the lab theory can’t be blithely dismissed, even though, incredibly enough, the WHO study treats more seriously a debunked theory pushed by the Chinese government stating that the disease originated in China when it arrived on foreign frozen-food packaging.

A recent segment on 60 Minutes explained why the lab theory remains a plausible explanation. Jamie Metzl, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council who advises WHO on genetic engineering, noted that the facility had experimented with nine viruses taken from bat caves, including one with genetic similarities to SARS-CoV-2. More crucially, the theory favored by WHO fails to explain a missing link. If it were true, Metzl said, the virus would have showed up prior to reaching Wuhan: “You would have had an outbreak, perhaps in Southern China where they have those animal farms. You may have seen some kind of evidence of an outbreak along the way.”

The U.S. government has declassified key intelligence assessments supporting the lab-leak theory. A fact sheet released by the State Department in January revealed that the U.S. “has reason to believe that several researchers inside the WIV became sick in autumn 2019,” that researchers in the lab worked with “RaTG13, the bat coronavirus identified by the WIV in January 2020 as its closest sample to SARS-CoV-2,” and that the facility “collaborated on publications and secret projects with China’s military,” despite posing as a civilian research institution.

Not only was the work of the WHO investigators severely restricted by the Chinese government, they themselves have been strangely antagonistic to these conclusions. During a press conference in Wuhan, Peter Ben Embarek, the researcher who led the mission, called the lab-leak theory “extremely unlikely,” though after returning from China he clarified that it is “definitely not off the table.” (The WHO mission’s report this week reverts to Ben Embarek’s first formulation.)

Another researcher on the mission, Peter Daszak, president of the nonprofit EcoHealth Alliance, had organized a statement signed by researchers that called the lab-leak hypothesis a “conspiracy theory” almost a year before.

Notably, Daszak’s EcoHealth Alliance received a National Institutes of Health grant that it used to fund research at WIV, and he has co-authored over 20 studies with Chinese party-state researchers or otherwise funded by the Chinese party-state institutions, including the People’s Liberation Army. In other words, as a February letter by more than two dozen scientists criticizing the WHO mission’s work put it, his “public statements cast serious doubts as to his scientific objectivity.”

Someone with such obvious conflicts of interest should never have served on the Wuhan investigation panel, and it is telling that Daszak was the only American allowed to join the mission, after the organization turned down scientists put forward by the U.S. government.

But an unwillingness to seriously consider the lab theory has characterized the origins debate from the beginning.

When former CDC director Robert Redfield said last week that he believes that the virus escaped from WIV, the New York Times and CBS ran stories portraying his statement as unsupported by science (initially, the NYT headline falsely referred to it as “debunked”). Meanwhile, top Maryland lawmakers pressured Governor Larry Hogan, whom Redfield is advising on COVID matters, to distance himself from the former official, because his comments allegedly put Asian Americans at greater risk of violence.

Addressing the controversy, Dr. Anthony Fauci said that for Redfield’s explanation to be true, the virus would have “entered the outside human population already well-adapted to humans.” This may well have happened, though, and would be consistent with the “gain-of function” experiments that make a disease more infectious for purposes of scientific research.

The Biden administration, without endorsing the lab theory, has confirmed the underlying findings contained in the Trump-era WIV fact sheet, according to comments by an anonymous senior administration official to the Washington Post’s Josh Rogin in early March. On Sunday, Secretary of State Antony Blinken expressed “real concerns about the methodology and the process” behind the WHO report, given the Chinese government’s role in producing it.

And after the report’s release on Tuesday, the U.S. issued a joint statement with 13 other countries to express concern that the study “was significantly delayed and lacked access to complete, original data and samples.” Even WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said of the lab hypothesis during remarks about the study, “I do not believe that this assessment was extensive enough,” and called for further investigation of the theory. 

Given how much we still don’t know, it would serve the public, not to mention history and science, to have a truly trustworthy and comprehensive investigation into the origins of this calamity. What we do know is that such an investigation will never be forthcoming from the WHO or under the CCP.

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