A World Health Organization (WHO) team investigating the origins of COVID-19 is planning to scrap an interim report on its recent mission to China amid mounting tensions between Beijing and Washington over the investigation and an appeal from one international group of scientists for a new inquiry, The Wall Street Journal reported on Thursday.
“The full report is expected in coming weeks,” WHO spokesman Tarik Jasarevic told Reuters news agency.
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No further information was immediately available about the reasons for the delay in publishing the findings of the WHO-led mission to the central Chinese city of Wuhan, where the first human cases of COVID-19 were detected in late 2019.
In an open letter (PDF), a group of 26 scientists called on Thursday for a new international inquiry. They claim that “structural limitations” made it “all but impossible” for the WHO mission to adequately pursue its investigation. Among other issues, the scientists questioned the scientific independence of the “Chinese citizens” composing half of the team.
“We have therefore reached the conclusion that the joint team did not have the mandate, the independence, or the necessary accesses to carry out a full and unrestricted investigation into all the relevant SARS-CoV-2 origin hypotheses – whether natural spillover or laboratory/research related incident,” read the letter.
The Wuhan Institute of Virology collected extensive virus samples, leading to allegations it may have caused the original outbreak by leaking the virus into the surrounding community. China has strongly rejected that possibility and has promoted other theories that the virus may have originated elsewhere, including from the United States.
The team is considering several theories for how the disease first ended up in humans.
China refused to give raw data on early COVID-19 cases to a WHO-led team investigating the origins of the pandemic, Dominic Dwyer, one of the team’s investigators, said last month, potentially complicating efforts to understand how the outbreak began.
The investigation had been plagued by delays, concern over access and bickering between Beijing and Washington, which accused China of hiding the extent of the initial outbreak and criticised the terms of the visit, under which Chinese experts conducted the first phase of research.
The team, which arrived in China in January and spent four weeks looking into the origins of the outbreak, was limited to visits organised by their Chinese hosts and prevented from contact with community members, due to health restrictions. The first two weeks were spent in hotel quarantine.
On February 9, the WHO food safety and animal diseases expert, Peter Ben Embarek, said the origins of the coronavirus pandemic was “extremely unlikely” to have leaked from a Chinese lab.
However, on February 12, WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said all hypotheses on the origins of COVID-19 remained on the table.
The previous US administration of President Donald Trump said it believed the virus may have escaped from a lab in the Chinese city of Wuhan.