News Brief

Exclusion Of Covid-19 Lab Leak Theory Was Premature, Says WHO Director-General

Bhaswati Guha Majumder

Jul 16, 2021, 03:16 PM | Updated 03:16 PM IST

Tedros Adhanom, Director General of the World Health Organization
Tedros Adhanom, Director General of the World Health Organization
  • As scientists investigate the origins of the SARS-CoV-2, the WHO director-general said he is asking China to be more transparent, particularly on the information and raw data that the healthcare body requested in the early days of the pandemic.
  • The World Health Organization's director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said that ruling out a possible link between the Covid-19 pandemic and a laboratory leak was "premature". He said on 15 July that he is asking China to be more transparent as scientists investigate the origins of the SARS-CoV-2.

    After the first human cases were identified in the Chinese city of Wuhan, the virus started to spread across the world within months like a wildfire. The United Nations agency declared the outbreak in China a Public Health Emergency of International Concern on 30 January 2020, and on 11 March, the agency announced that it is a pandemic. Meanwhile, several theories appeared, and lab leak was one of them that first came under the spotlight last year. But in recent months, many experts have shown more curiosity to know about its possibility, and the United States President Joe Biden has also asked his officials to review it.

    However, WHO's role has been criticised by many for its lenient behaviour towards China, which failed to share early information with the health agency when there was time to control the spread of the novel virus. But, according to a report by the Associated Press, published in June 2020, recording of WHO's internal meetings revealed that health officials complained about the lack of data from China in January, and the agency was frustrated about the fact that Beijing was clamping down on the covert search for the pandemic's origins.

    Now, the WHO chief, who earlier praised Beijing for its so-called speed and transparency, accepted that getting access to raw data had been a struggle for the international team that flew to China earlier this year to investigate the source of Covid-19. When the expert team visited the country, they faced restrictions imposed by the Chinese authorities that, according to many, might have jeopardised the entire operation. The team later said that it is extremely "unlikely" that the virus was leaked from the lab. This conclusion failed to convince many people, including some scientists.

    On 7 June, Mike Ryan, WHO's director of emergencies, was asked how the agency will "compel" China to become more transparent about the Covid-19. At that time, he stated that "WHO doesn't have the power to compel anyone in this regard. We fully expect cooperation, input and support of all of our member states in that endeavour".

    This week, Ghebreyesus said that the health agency in Geneva is asking China to be transparent, open and cooperate, particularly on the information and raw data that the healthcare body requested in the early days of the pandemic. He said that there had been a "premature push" to rule out the lab leak theory that the virus might have escaped from a Chinese government lab in Wuhan–undermining WHO's investigation report. Additionally, he said: "I was a lab technician myself, I'm an immunologist and I have worked in the lab and lab accidents happen. It's common".

    But Beijing officials have been repeating the same words as they did last year. When the lab leak theory once again became a topic of discussion this year, China retaliated forcefully, claiming that attempts to link novel coronavirus' origin to a lab were politically driven and speculating that the virus may have originated elsewhere. China said at the WHO's annual conference of health ministers in the spring that the search for Covid-19's origins should continue—inside the borders of other countries. The coronavirus is thought to have started in bats, but the specific mechanism by which it spread to humans—whether through an intermediary species or some other means—has yet to be identified.

    Detecting the natural source of an animal virus like Ebola or SARS can take decades, and without crucial data, such scientific work can only become more challenging. In the case of Covid-19, to determine if the pandemic had any laboratory links, Tedros stated that "checking what happened, especially in our labs", is very critical. He said: "We need information, direct information on what the situation of this lab was before and at the start of the pandemic". He also clearly stated that China's cooperation was critical to find the truth, and "if we get full information, we can exclude (the lab theory)".

    Get Swarajya in your inbox.