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All hypotheses open and require further study: WHO chief

PT Jyothi Datta Mumbai | Updated on February 15, 2021

World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus at a press conference in Geneva   -  AFP

Clarification follows fact-finding mission’s inconclusive early report on the origins of the novel coronavirus

The World Health Organization chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus has clarified that the door has not been shut on any of the theories being investigated as the possible origin of the novel coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2).

“Some questions have been raised as to whether some hypotheses have been discarded. I want to clarify that all hypotheses remain open and require further study,” Tedros said, even as the WHO-convened team of international researchers completed their China visit.

The expert team is working on its final report, while a summary one is expected next week, he told media representatives, late on Friday. It was clear from the start, the mission would not find all the answers, he said, but it has helped understand the early days of the pandemic and identified areas for further analysis. Additional work may lie outside the scope of this mission and could involve more experts, he added.

‘Lab leak’ theory

The clarification follows an earlier briefing from Wuhan by the research team and counterparts in China, on concluding their study. The briefing drew criticism from some quarters for appearing to put a lid on the theory of a “lab leak” being the source of the virus. Besides, the Wuhan wet market (initially thought to be the location where the virus jumped species - possibly from bats to humans) also appeared to have not been the direct source. Instead, the researchers pointed to imported frozen meat products as a possible source.

Peter Ben Embarek, WHO lead of the international research team to China explained, the mission was “just the start”, though much progress had been made on the local virus circulation and the role of the wet market, among other things. “We still are far away from understanding the origin and the animal species or the pathway by which the animal could have entered the human in December (2019),”he added.

Responding to a query on whether the mission was successful, Mike Ryan, Executive Director, WHO Emergency programme, said, “success is a relative term and can never be declared”, in public health. “What we have made is progress... that is all we ever make in science..”

Mission criticism

Criticism of the early findings involved absolving the role of the Wuhan Institute of Virology in the alleged virus leak. Researchers had said it was “highly unlikely,”and the theory did not require further follow-up. The role of the wet market also appeared to get watered down as researchers pointed to imported Australian beef as a possible source, something dismissed by Australian authorities. In the past, China has pointed to the US, Italy and India too, as a possible source of the virus.

The international team comprised experts from Australia, Denmark, Germany, Japan, Netherlands, Qatar, the Russian Federation, the UK, the US and Vietnam. It also included experts from the WHO, FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization) and OIE (the World Organisation for Animal Health). Their inconclusive report drew flak, despite limitations faced by them to review raw data in the host country. Some quarters called the report a “whitewash”. China has been criticised by some countries for not acting soon enough on the deadly virus that brought global activity to a grinding halt last year.

The clarification comes even as global cases of Covid-19 declined for the fourth week in a row, and deaths fell for the second consecutive week.

This was possibly due to countries implementing public health measures more stringently, said Tedros, cautioning that complacency was as dangerous as the virus and everyone needed to not let down their guard.

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Published on February 15, 2021
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