Just as the World Health Organization is developing plans for the next phase of its investigation into the traceability of the New Coronavirus, a growing number of scientists are saying that the U.N. agency is not equipped to lead this investigation and therefore should not be allowed to do so.
The news comes in an exclusive report issued Friday (July 2) by The Associated Press. Some experts, including those with close ties to the WHO, say political tensions between the United States and China are so high that a WHO-led investigation is unlikely to yield credible answers, the report said.
What is needed, they argue, is a broad independent investigation, similar to the one into the Chernobyl nuclear disaster that occurred in Russia in 1986.
The first phase of the virus traceability investigation was a joint WHO-China effort that ended in March of this year. That investigation concluded that the new coronavirus could have been transmitted to humans through animals and that a laboratory leak was “highly unlikely.
The next phase of the investigation will have to find details of the initial cases of patients infected with the virus, or determine which animal transmitted the virus, such as bats, or through some other intermediate host.
But more recently, the idea that the pandemic could have been caused by a laboratory leak or by a virus that had been artificially modified has gained more support. President Joe Biden has ordered the U.S. intelligence system to come up with a study on the source of the virus within 90 days.
Last month, WHO emergency program director Dr. Mike Ryan said the WHO was nearing the end of the development of the next phase of the investigation, but Ryan stressed that the WHO could only “persuade” China to help, and that it had no authority to force China to cooperate.
This, it is argued, is why the WHO-led investigation is doomed to fail.
Lawrence Gostin, director of the WHO Center for Cooperation in Public Health Law and Human Rights at Georgetown University, was quoted by the Associated Press as saying, “We will never find the source of the virus if we rely on the WHO.”
Gostin said, “For a year and a half, WHO has been at the mercy of China, and it’s very clear that it’s impossible for WHO to get to the bottom of this.”
Gostin said countries such as the United States could piece together the various clues through their own intelligence services, amend international health law to give WHO the powers it needs, or form a separate new agency dedicated to the investigation.
The first phase of the WHO mission requires Chinese consent, not just for the entry of WHO experts, but also for the full agenda of the investigation and for the final investigation report from the experts.
Richard Ebright, a molecular biologist at Rutgers University, called it “nonsense. He said determining whether the virus came from an animal, or from a laboratory leak, is first and foremost a scientific question, one that goes beyond the WHO’s expertise and has political ramifications.
The last time humans found a gene closest to the new coronavirus was in 2012. Previously, six workers at an abandoned mine in the town of Tongguan in Mojiang, Yunnan province, China, had developed pneumonia after coming into contact with bats carrying the virus. Last year, however, Chinese authorities sealed off the mine and confiscated samples of the virus obtained by scientists, and ordered local people not to talk to journalists about it.
While Chinese authorities initially encouraged experts to investigate the source of the virus after the outbreak, they soon changed their tune abruptly after the virus spread globally in early 2020. An Associated Press investigation last December found that Beijing imposed multiple restrictions on research papers on the new coronavirus, forcing all relevant papers to be reviewed by a central agency.
WHO advisory panel member Jamie Metzl and some of his colleagues have put forward a proposal to study the feasibility of a new investigation by the Group of Seven industrialized countries.
Jeffrey Sachs, a professor at Columbia University, said the United States must be willing to subject U.S. scientists to a rigorous investigation and recognize that they may have the same responsibilities as Chinese scientists.
Sachs said, “The United States is deeply involved in the research activities of the Wuhan lab.” He was referring here to the U.S. financial support for the controversial experiments conducted by those labs and the search for the animal virus that caused the outbreak.
Sachs said, “The view that China acted badly has placed this investigation on a false premise from the beginning.” He said, “If the lab work [for the outbreak] is somehow responsible, then a strong possibility is that both the U.S. and China, which were jointly involved in this scientific research, are responsible.”