WHO Should Look Beyond Animals on Covid Origin, Scientists Say

The World Health Organization should convene another investigation into the origins of the coronavirus pandemic that looks beyond animal sources, a group of scientists said in an open letter.

The signatories proposed specific steps on what any new probe should take into account. Suggestions include ensuring that a team can undertake studies without the “unnecessary presence” of government officials of the host country, removing any veto powers in the member-selection process and a mandate for broad access to data, records and samples.

A joint mission including scientists from China and organized with the WHO found that the coronavirus probably spread from bats to humans via another animal, and considered a laboratory incident the least likely hypothesis. Because the study’s aim was defined as probing the zoonotic source of the virus, other theories didn’t receive the same attention and the team didn’t fully investigate labs, Peter Ben Embarek, co-leader of the trip, said after a report was published in March.

WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said afterward that the probe didn’t adequately analyze the possibility of a lab accident before deciding it’s most likely the pathogen spread from bats to humans via another animal. He said he is ready to deploy additional missions involving specialist experts. However, that will require China’s cooperation.

The Chinese city of Wuhan, where the first Covid-19 outbreak was identified, is home to a high-security virus lab, and that proximity has prompted former U.S. President Donald Trump and others to speculate on the possibility of a leak. China has denied any connection, floating the alternative theory that the virus may have entered the country via frozen-food imports.

The open letter published Friday was the third from the group. The more than 20 signatories included Steven Quay, chief executive officer at Atossa Therapeutics Inc., which develops treatments for breast cancer and Covid-19, while Jamie Metzl, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, co-organized it.

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