In Reversal, UN Health Agency Says Virus Lab Leak Theory Still on the Table

Three days after a team of scientists said it wasn’t worth investigating whether the novel coronavirus accidentally escaped from a Wuhan laboratory, the World Health Organization’s director-general said that hypothesis will be studied further.

The logo of the World Health Organization is seen at the WHO headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland. (AP Photo/Anja Niedringhaus, File)

(CN) — In a reversal, the head of the World Health Organization on Friday said a team of international scientists investigating the origins of the novel coronavirus will not stop looking into whether the deadly virus accidentally escaped from a Chinese laboratory.

“Some questions have been raised as to whether some hypotheses have been discarded,” said Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the WHO director-general, during a news briefing at his agency’s Geneva headquarters. “Having spoken with some members of the team, I wish to confirm that all hypotheses remain open and require further analysis and studies.”

His statement related to the politically charged question about whether the novel coronavirus now rampaging around the world may actually have come from the Wuhan Institute of Virology, a state-backed laboratory working with coronaviruses. The Trump administration alleged, without providing evidence, that an accident at the lab allowed the virus to escape and infect the human population.

Tedros’ statement contradicted what one of his agency’s lead scientists said on Tuesday during a news conference at the end of a four-week mission to Wuhan to find the origins of the virus.

At the new conference, where the team outlined its initial findings, WHO scientist Peter Ben Embarek said the lab accident hypothesis was not worth further study. The international team is working with Chinese scientists on the origins study and they are expected to release an initial joint report in the coming days.

“The findings suggest that the laboratory incident hypothesis is extremely unlikely to explain the introduction of the virus into the human population,” Embarek said, standing next to the lead Chinese scientist in a large hotel conference room in Wuhan.

Embarek, a Danish expert in animal diseases, added in somewhat garbled English: “Therefore [it] is not a hypothesis that will suggest – that will imply to suggest – future studies into our work to support our future work into the understanding of the origin of the virus.”

Embarek said the team came to its findings after inspecting the Wuhan institute, reviewing its work and speaking with its staff. The dismissal of the lab accident theory – based as it was on such limited information and the lab’s word – was criticized as too trusting of China. American media, including the New York Times, characterized Tuesday’s news conference as a PR win for China. The Washington Post has begun calling for more transparency from the Wuhan lab. The lab has been accused of working with undisclosed coronaviruses. Still, scientists generally dismiss as implausible the theory that the virus leaked from the lab. 

On Tuesday, Embarek said the team of Chinese and international experts examined four hypotheses to explain how the virus started infecting humans. He said the team agreed the most likely possibility was that the virus jumped from bats or pangolins into an intermediate species before infecting humans.

But the team also said it was worth studying a theory pushed by Chinese scientists that the virus arrived in Wuhan through frozen meat products containing the virus. China has called for scientific teams to investigate other countries as part of the origins probe. In a telling window into China’s thinking, a banner behind the speakers at Tuesday’s news conference read: “WHO-Convened Global Study of Origins of SARS-CoV-2: China Part.”

On Friday, Tedros did not speak directly about the lab accident theory but it was obvious he was referring to it. On Tuesday, Embarek said the lab accident hypothesis was the only one not worth pursuing.

Tedros suggested that new experts may be called upon to assist the international team.

“Some of that work may lie outside of the remit and scope of this mission,” he said. “Within the team, still more experts that can focus on the continued studies can actually be added.”

During Friday’s news conference, Embarek was asked whether the team was given access to information about any unpublished viruses at the Wuhan laboratory. The lab has said it was unfamiliar with SARS-CoV-2, as the novel coronavirus that causes Covid-19 is classified.

“It’s of course always possible that the virus is and was present in samples that have yet been processed or among viruses that have not yet been characterized,” Embarek said. “But knowingly, apparently, from all the labs we’ve talked with, nobody has seen this virus before.”

Had the virus been found, he said scientists would have reported it.

“We would probably have seen it over the years mentioned in research publications; usually laboratory researchers who work and discover new viruses would immediately publish their findings,” he said. “That’s common practice around the world, in particular with new, interesting viruses.”


Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.

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