World experts condemn WHO inquiry as a ‘charade’

Published by The Mail on Sunday (14th February, 2021)

The World Health Organisation’s inquiry into the source of the pandemic is a ‘charade’ to appease China, leading experts on biosecurity and infectious diseases have told The Mail on Sunday.

Instead of seeking the truth, last week’s initial findings, they say, were a political stunt that help the Beijing government in its desperation to be exonerated.

The scientists accuse the UN body of brushing aside concerns over a possible lab leak in Wuhan to push ‘fanciful’ theories that Covid-19 emerged outside China and could have been imported into the city on frozen food.

Bruno Canard Structural virologist and director of research of France’s National Centre for Scientific Research.

‘The WHO investigation is a masquerade. There are so many conflicts of interest and obfuscation that it is as if you asked Hassan Rouhani [Iran’s president] to lead an international check on Iran’s nuclear programme. The WHO is committing credibility suicide.’

Richard Ebright Biosafety expert and professor of chemical biology at Rutgers University, New Jersey.

‘The WHO mission was a charade. It has no credibility. Its members were willing – and, in at least one case, eager – participants in disinformation. The predetermined, preordained purpose of the mission was to raise the false-flag proposal that Sars-CoV-2 originated outside China – possibly in southeast Asia, or possibly in Europe or the US – and arrived in Wuhan through international travel or internationally shipped frozen food. No serious person considers internationally shipped frozen food as a plausible explanation of how SARS-CoV-2 arrived in Wuhan.’

David Relman Biosecurity expert and professor of microbiology and immunology at Stanford University, California.*

‘If the only information you’re allowing to be weighed is provided by the very people who have everything to lose by revealing such evidence, that doesn’t come close to passing the sniff test.’

Filippa Lentzos Biosecurity expert at the Departments of War Studies and of Global Health and Social Medicine at King’s College London.

‘The mission’s messaging was clearly political – not scientific – and aligned very closely with Beijing’s narrative of a possible origin source outside China’s borders. They provided no credible evidence for why they do not feel the lab-leak hypothesis should remain on the table or why other explanations were seen as more likely. No evidence was presented for why they ranked the intermediate host theory between bats and humans so much higher than other possibilities when no host animal has been identified after more than a year of searching. Just because there is precedent is not a good enough argument – biosafety lapses have happened before too’

Colin Butler Former WHO adviser and epidemiologist at Australian National University.

‘The dismissal of the lab-leak theory could have been provided in a novel by George Orwell. The evidence against this hypothesis appears to boil down to something like: “We spent three hours at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, we talked to the people there, and we formed the opinion they are honest and competent. When they said the virus had not leaked, we believed them. I am over-simplifying, but this conclusion is based on flimsy evidence. WHO greatly harmed its reputation by including Peter Daszak [a British scientist] on the team when he has such obvious conflicts of interest from his work and friendships in Wuhan.’

Jacques Van Helden Professor of bioinformatics at Aix-Marseille Université, Marseille, France.

‘The WHO panel concluded the lab incident hypothesis is extremely unlikely and would not be further studied, but did not provide a single scientific argument. They considered safety culture at the Wuhan lab to be excellent and interviewed researchers who claimed they were not working on Sars-CoV-2 before its emergence. Yet we have concluded that data currently available is insufficient to either rule out or formally demonstrate any specific scenario, whether natural zoonotic transmission to humans (by wild or farmed animals) or a lab incident. We also pinpointed logical flaws in the arguments supporting the natural zoonosis. We must keep exploring every scenario, evidence-based and prejudice-free, while avoiding speculation and political hijacking.’

Mona Rahalkar Microbiologist at Agharkar Research Institute in India, who has spent the past eight months investigating the origins of Covid-19.

‘Ruling out the lab leak hypothesis without solid evidence makes no sense. The outbreak started in Wuhan. This city hosted Wuhan Institute of Virology and two other institutes carrying out research into coronaviruses. The institute collected the closest known relative to Sars-Cov-2 and other viruses with unknown sequences from a mine in southern China, where miners developed a mystery respiratory illness. Its pathogen database was taken offline on December 30, 2019 – the same day its expert Shi Zhengli was called back from Shanghai urgently. The WHO team should have demanded all virus sequences and databases – and only then, after thorough analysis, commented on the leak hypothesis.’

Nikolai Petrovsky Professor of medicine at Flinders University, Adelaide, and coronavirus vaccine developer.

‘This preliminary WHO report does not change the existing divergent narrative on origins of the virus. It does however go further than many might have expected in emphasising two key assertions made by the Chinese government but challenged by others: that the virus source of the pandemic may lie outside China and the possibility the transmission into China occurred via frozen food. The idea the virus was originally brought into China on frozen feeds is at best fanciful and looks to be a smokescreen; the panel endorsing this is surprising as scientifically this possibility would have to be far more remote than a lab origin. This report leaves us no closer to knowing the origins.  A truly independent investigation remains needed.’

Raina Macintyre Infectious diseases expert and head of Biosecurity Research Programme, Kirby Institute, University of New South Wales, Australia.

‘The team does not reveal anything substantially new. We knew the bat that carries the closest relative is thousands of miles away in Yunnan.The virus may well have emerged in nature but a lab accident is also a possibility as the BSL4 lab in Wuhan was studying bat coronaviruses – including the virus found in the miners outbreak in 2012. They dismissed possible unnatural origins, which was expected given the political sensitivities – not just for China. If a lab accident were the source, it would have huge ramifications globally including for the regulation and practice of virology. They do not provide any evidence for dismissing a lab leak. We may never know the origins.’

Rossana Segreto Microbiologist at University of Innsbruck, Austria, and author of papers examining possible genetic manipulation of the virus.

‘The WHO team does not seem to be acting seriously by dismissing a lab leak before the world’s media, then later saying all hypotheses require further study. The structure of Sars-Cov-2 shows this virus could have been produced artificially. There is still no scientifically verifiable proof the pathogen developed naturally, yet a potential human error-induced lab accident as a source of the pandemic was ruled out. This is negligent, putting us all at risk, when there are multiple examples of previous lab accidents and dozens of laboratories around the world are experimenting with mutated pathogens with potential to trigger a pandemic.’

Jamie Metzl Healthcare and technology expert, member of the WHO advisory committee on human genome editing.

‘I was appalled by the announcement that the possibility of an accidental lab leak does not merit further investigation. While no evidence has yet been found indicating Covid-19 stems from transmission between animal hosts in the wild or from frozen foods, as the committee entertains, significant evidence points to accidental leak as a possible origin. We need urgently an unrestricted forensic investigation without access managed by the Chinese authorities. The WHO probe in its present form does not meet that standard. I was pleased therefore to see the director-general refute the team’s claim by insisting ‘all hypotheses remain open.’

Alina Chan Molecular biologist at Broad Institute of Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

‘The investigation served China’s purposes by delivering precisely the outcome it wanted since the WHO was saying things such as the need to investigate frozen food transmission and suggestions the virus came from another country while ruling out a lab leak. Yet the closest relatives to Sars-CoV-2 were found in China and several scientific analyses have estimated a single introduction back to late October or early November 2019. This felt like a performance that gave China everything it wanted. WHO has shown that it has no leverage against a country such as China that plays hardball.’

Rasmus Nielsen Professor of computational biology at University of California, Berkeley.

‘No responsible scientist should make strong claims about the origin at this I don’t think any responsible scientist should make strong claims about the origin at this point. Chinese researchers were banned in March from investigating and other researchers have not had access to samples and data. The only evidence used to exclude a lab leak is the apparent high safety standards of the lab in the WIV; I see this a very weak statement that is more political than scientific. The goal should be to ensure we do not see another repeat of this pandemic – and to do so, we need to understand the events leading to the transfer of Sars-CoV-2 into humans. Scientific evidence is scant at the moment.’

Michael Lin Associate professor of Neurobiology and Bioengineering at Stanford University, California.

‘The idea of transmission by frozen food is theoretically possible but so far there’s been no known cases of this happening. If we are going to spend time investigating this hypothesis then we should also have a thorough investigation into more likely hypotheses. There is no dispute the first known cases of Covid-19 are in Wuhan. WHO should remain open to the possibility of a lab leak but it has demonstrated in this epidemic that it doesn’t always, or even usually, work on basis of scientific logic. The perfunctory investigation, consisting of asking Chinese officials and scientists questions, is far from adequate in putting to rest concerns about lab leak.’

(* Speaking to the Washington Post)

These are the full versions of edits that appeared in the paper

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