Bats, minks, frozen meat, or an accidental laboratory leak? The world at large seems to be as confused as ever by the results of the long-awaited WHO-China joint study on the origins of the novel coronavirus or SARS-CoV-2. Even World Health Organization chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus has raised doubts now, saying “data was withheld from investigators who travelled to China”.
Good science takes time, and requires scientists to work without external political pressures. But can an unbiased investigation take place when a country is involved in investigating allegations against itself? That is why the WHO report is ThePrint’s Newsmaker of the Week.
It’s been more than a year since the Covid pandemic hit countries around the world. Over 2.8 million people have died, while more than 130 million positive cases have been reported so far. Economies came to a standstill, even as science labs across the world raced to create a vaccine.
The first sample of the virus had been sequenced as early as January 2020. Since then, thousands of samples have been sequenced worldwide — helping develop vaccines, improve therapies against the disease and understand how the virus spread from one country to another.
Several vaccine candidates have now been rolled out, which experts believe will end the pandemic.
But one key question remains: Where did the virus come from?
In the early stages of the pandemic, several conspiracy theorists alleged that the virus was lab-made and deliberately released into the world as a bioweapon.
Sequencing of the virus, however, has dispelled this theory, showing that the virus is genetically related to coronaviruses found in bats.
However, there is still a possibility that a research lab studying bat viruses may have accidentally spread the virus, and that the pandemic got out of hand because of the reluctance of Chinese authorities to admit the mistake and take counter measures to contain the spread.
Robert Redfield, former chief of US CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), expressed similar misgivings.
In fact, the World Health Organization (WHO)’s report does note that the Wuhan CDC laboratory shifted near the Huanan market — a wet meat market that is thought to have been the source of the virus — shortly before the pandemic broke out.
The report rules out accidental lab leak theory based on two major points — first, none of the lab workers reported falling sick; and second, no disruptions were reported.
WHO adds to confusion
Just after the report was released on 30 March, WHO chief Ghebreyesus said that the evidence was not enough to support the accidental lab leak theory, and that, as far as the WHO is concerned, all the hypotheses are still on the table and need to be followed upon.
His comments came after the US along with 13 other countries issued a statement accusing Beijing of failing to give proper access to the investigators. While Joe Biden’s administration recommitted to the WHO hours after becoming president, the US has not gone soft on China regarding the latter’s role in the spread of the coronavirus.
The WHO-China study, at best, is a succinct summary of the confusion that already exists around the origin of the virus. Each hypothesis is presented, then supported with evidence and then countered, leaving none any wiser.
It does appear, though, that specific effort has been taken to not only absolve China of any blame, but also open up new lines of investigations that lead researchers out of China.
Chinese meddling started it
There have been allegations that China tried to hush up earlier instances of the Covid infection, despite warning from doctors in the region. Epidemiological modelling, in fact, suggests that the virus was circulating in humans months before the first case was reported in December 2019.
However, the WHO report states that retrospective serosurveys — analysis of blood samples that had been collected before December 2019 for different purposes — finds no evidence of the widespread circulation of the virus within the population in Wuhan.
The fact that the Chinese authorities tried to silence the doctor Li Wenliang, who tried to warn his colleagues about the mystery infection at a time when the spread could have possibly been contained, has deepened the world’s distrust of China when it comes to handling the disease spread.
One hypothesis on the spread is that the virus jumped from bats to humans through cold chain — that is, imported frozen meats. The WHO report points out that the Huanan market imported meats from at least 20 different countries and recommends investigating these supply chains. At the same time, the report states that none of the meat from the market itself tested positive for the virus.
The report also recommends worldwide search in relevant wildlife species to look for the coronavirus, since no positive sample has been found so far in a large survey of Chinese animals.
Both these points make it evident that China is trying to shift the focus of the investigation away from itself. In fact, China confirmed this stand by asking the WHO to probe whether Covid-19 first emerged in other countries — possibly including a US military laboratory.
A noted Yale University sociologist had pointed out that China’s authoritarian regime helped it tackle the virus in a way no other country could. Despite being the epicentre, China was able to contain its pandemic to just over 90,000, by imposing severe restrictions even on local travel.
The authoritarian approach makes it next to impossible to find the truth about the virus’ origin — no matter how many research missions Tedros deploys to China. And as time passes, it will become even more difficult to retrace the path the deadly virus took.
China may not have been able to contain the spread of the virus, but the truth of how it all started may never leave the country. As for the world, it now needs to focus on ending the pandemic, given the mutations being discovered every other day.
Views are personal.
(Edited by Prashant Dixit)
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