Science’s COVID-19 reporting is supported by the Heising-Simons Foundation.
In a sharp tightening of the diplomatic screws, the director of the World Health Organization (WHO), Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, is urging China to increase its transparency about the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic and allow greater access to its labs to help resolve the origin of SARS-CoV-2. Tedros, as he prefers to be called, also says WHO will create a new body to conduct the next phase of studies into the emergence of the virus, an unexpected move that concerns some scientists, including at least one member of an existing mission that the agency organized to study COVID-19’s origin. “I’m worried about delays and of course it’s a bit strange,” says virologist and veterinarian Marion Koopmans of Erasmus University. “We’re losing valuable time.”
At a press conference on 15 July and in a statement made yesterday at an information session on the pandemic’s origin, Tedros called for more aggressively probing the two leading theories of how SARS-CoV-2 first infected humans and then emerged in Wuhan in December 2019: that the virus made a natural “zoonotic” jump from an unknown animal species into humans or, more controversially, that it first infected a human during laboratory or field studies of coronaviruses found in animals. (An even more contentious theory suggests the virus was genetically engineered in a Wuhan lab.)
Tedros, who has been accused of being too deferential to Chinese President Xi Jinping, said China has not shared “raw data” from the early days of the pandemic and called for “audits of relevant laboratories and research institutions operating in the area of the initial human cases identified in December 2019.” The Wuhan Institute of Virology is world famous for its study of bat coronaviruses, and an outpost of the country’s Center for Disease Control and Prevention also has a lab in the city that does similar work.
Researchers who have been critical of WHO’s handling of the origin issue welcome Tedros’ tougher tone. “It’s a sign that the WHO might be able to do more credible or balanced investigation,” says Alina Chan, a gene therapy researcher at the Broad Institute, who with 17 other scientists co-authored a 14 May letter in Science that argued the lab theory deserves a more balanced assessment. But Chan doubts that China will agree to audits of its labs. “Right now, the lack of clarity is in China’s interest,” she says .
Another author of the Science letter, microbiome researcher David Relman of Stanford University, wished Tedros had owned up to past WHO “missteps.” “I don’t think he can simply just take the next step and not worry about what’s happened so far.”
But other researchers think Tedros has been caught up in what Gerald Keusch, associate director of the National Emerging Infectious Diseases Laboratory Institute at Boston University, calls “the barrage of media and political commentary”– particularly sharp in the United States, WHO’s largest funder—about a potential lab leak. The Biden administration, which recently rejoined WHO after former president Donald Trump’s rift with the agency, has launched its own inquiry in the origins of the pandemic, including a possible lab leak. “I think he’s under enormous pressure, and he’s capitulated,” says Keusch, who co-authored two letters in the Lancet that favor the natural origin theory and criticize the “conspiracy theories” and speculation that fuel some lab-origin arguments. “It’s sad.” (Tedros declined an interview request.)
Earlier this year, the WHO sent a team of international scientists to China to work with colleagues there on a joint mission to study the origin of SARS-CoV-2. The team explicitly was not asked to examine the lab origin hypothesis, yet it did discuss that scenario at length with researchers at the Wuhan Institute of Virology. The report issued in March by the joint mission, which had just completed the first of two planned phases of studies, then declared the lab origin hypothesis “extremely unlikely” and favored the zoonotic theory.
That sparked controversy, and even Tedros was chagrined. At the press conference Thursday he said it was “premature” to discount the lab theory. “As you know, I was a lab technician myself, an immunologist, and have worked in the lab. And lab accidents happen. It’s common.”
China’s Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Zhao Lijian pushed back on Tedros’ remarks at a press conference yesterday, stressing that the joint mission report reached “important conclusions.” Zhao, who repeated the Chinese government’s frequent claim that SARS-CoV-2 might have first infected a human in another country or even entered China through frozen food, suggested the WHO director was “politicizing the issue.” China shared “large amounts of data” with the WHO mission team, he insisted, only holding back information that compromised personal privacy.
International members of the joint mission have previously noted they both lacked a mandate and didn’t have the expertise to conduct an independent biosafety audit of the Wuhan labs. Koopmans calls it’s “logical” to push for lab audits but suggests the demand right now could backfire. “It’s not going to be popular with China, so I’m a little bit worried that that will shut the doors to the rest of the studies that we feel are needed,” she says, adding that it would make more sense to lobby for audits if the soon-to-be completed investigation by the Biden administration yields any evidence supporting a lab origin.
Tedros’ call for more raw data echoes concerns raised by Koopmans and other international researchers on the joint mission. For example, they asked for more data on the first 174 documented COVID-19 cases, a plea Tedros repeated yesterday. But Koopmans says those data became less important to team members as their work progressed, because they realized that the pandemic predated those cases. A “circular” Tedros presented to member states earlier this week spelled out other data the phase 2 studies should attempt to gather—which the joint mission report describes in great detail—such as testing of captive and wild animals, particularly in regions where SARS-CoV-2 first circulated, and of humans who came in contact with them.
Tedros also told the member states in his remarks this week that he wanted more “studies of animal markets in and around Wuhan, including continuing studies on animals sold at the Huanan wholesale market.” In its final report, the mission had noted that it found “no verified reports of live mammals being sold around 2019” in the Huanan Seafood Market, which was linked to the first cluster of cases, and other Wuhan markets tied to early human infections. Yet a study posted 7 June 2021 in Scientific Reports documented that thousands of live mammals were sold between May 2017 and Nov 2019 at the markets, including Huanan, which alone was linked to 28% of the first 174 COVID-19 cases and also had abundant evidence of SARS-CoV-2 on its floors and in its drains.
Whether Koopmans and other members of the existing joint mission will help conduct those studies is murky. Tedros said a new WHO International Scientific Advisory Group for Origins of Novel Pathogens (SAGO) “will play a vital role in the next phase of studies into the origins of SARS-CoV-2, as well as the origins of future new pathogens.” WHO soon will make an open call for “highly qualified experts” to apply. Koopmans says she would welcome broadening the existing group’s expertise, especially to conduct lab audits and to study the blood of more humans who live far from Wuhan and may have been exposed to SARS-CoV-2 before the outbreak even surfaced.
Keusch, however, worries that SAGO will replace the existing origin task force. The current group has highly qualified, diverse experts who worked “diligently” and established important ties to their Chinese colleague, he says. “I’m very suspicious about dismissing the initial task force and now allowing individuals and governments to nominate themselves, which will result in a partisan, selective process and not lead to the best composition,” he says.
Relman, who says he is uncertain whether he will apply for SAGO because of the time commitment, wonders if WHO is the best organization to oversee SARS-CoV-2 origin studies. “They’re not a truly independent body,” says Relman. “They are the product of a very political world, and what makes their problem 100 times worse is that they don’t have the resources to operate independently.” He suggests the United Nations may want to create an entirely new organization along the lines of the International Atomic Energy Agency to study pathogen origins. But he is pleased at WHO’s new push for answers. “I really do hope that good science can rule the day.”
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