Can we trust the WHO on COVID-19 origins? The serious flaws behind its China report

WHO team members visit the Wuhan Institute of Virology on February 3.

Today, the WHO will publish the final report of its investigation into the origins of COVID-19. The paper may offer some new details on the virus that has defined the last 12 months, but it would be a mistake to characterize it as a definitive or unbiased probe of the COVID-19 pandemic. Below, why we still have no idea where COVID-19 arose.

Every step of the report was conducted with strict Chinese supervision

Even in liberal democracies with a free press, attempting to probe the origins of a massive catastrophe can be a messy affair. The 9/11 Commission, for instance, took two years and thrice had to exercise its powers of subpoena (each time against a U.S. government agency). Even then, some of the commission’s conclusions have since attracted criticism for relying on

flawed testimony from U.S. intelligence


By contrast, the WHO-led investigation into COVID-19’s origins was a team of 17 Chinese scientists and 10 non-Chinese investigators that spent two weeks conducting interviews under the constant supervision of the People’s Republic of China.

This is not to discount the integrity of the team, which comprised veteran microbiologists and medical researchers, but no interview occurred

without several representative of the Chinese government at the table

. “The politics was always in the room with us on the other side of the table,” said team member Peter Ben Embarek in February. The constant presence of government officials is particularly relevant given that Chinese physicians, including

famed Wuhan whistleblower Li Wenliang

, have faced official consequences for going against Beijing’s line on COVID-19.

“It’s essentially a highly-chaperoned, highly-curated study tour … this group of experts only saw what the Chinese government wanted them to see,” Jamie Metzl, a former senior advisor under U.S. president Bill Clinton,

told 60 Minutes this week


 Peter Ben Embarek, a member of the World Health Organization team tasked with investigating the origins of COVID-19, speaks to media at Wuhan airport.

Senior scientists haven’t fully dismissed ‘lab escape’ theory

The National Post has

previously covered

why an unintentional lab escape of COVID-19 is a plausible theory as to the pandemic’s origins. While the evidence is only circumstantial, it’s not in dispute that a novel coronavirus sprang up within walking distance of the high-security lab operated by the Wuhan Institute of Virology that specialized in the study of coronaviruses. That same lab had also attracted

pre-pandemic criticism of its lax safety practice

, and has links with a

still-under-investigation laboratory security breach

at Canada’s National Microbiology Laboratory in Winnipeg.

Earlier this month, more than a dozen international senior medical researchers signed an

open letter

calling for a more reliable investigation to definitively rule out the possibility of a “research-related accident.” And over the weekend, the lab escape theory got its most prominent endorsement in the guise of Robert Redfield, a career virologist and former head of the Centres for Disease Control under former U.S. president Donald Trump. “I still think the most likely etiology of this pathogen in Wuhan was from a laboratory escape,” he

told CNN

.  “It’s not unusual for respiratory pathogens that are being worked on in a laboratory to infect a laboratory worker.”

 In this photo from January, 2020, then-CDC director Robert Redfield speaks at a press briefing alongside senior White House COVID-19 advisor Anthony Fauci.

The Wuhan Institute of Virology was almost completely excluded from scrutiny

According to the Associated Press, one of the few definitive conclusions of the joint report is that the likelihood of a lab escape is so “extremely unlikely” that it

isn’t worth studying further

. This conclusion was reached by the team after only a cursory examination of the Wuhan Institute of Virology. Despite being the most controversial origin story for the virus (and one whose possibility has received

tacit endorsement

by the U.S. state department), the theory occupies a relatively small share of the final report.

The WHO team

spent only four hours at the facility

and their investigation was limited to interviews with laboratory staff. Investigators were told that the Institute saw “no disruptions or incidents,” and they

do not appear to have requested any documentation to support those claims


A formal audit of the lab was “far beyond what our team is mandated to do or has the tools and capabilities to do,” team member Peter Ben Embarek

told Science magazine in February.

He added “the fact that we assessed this hypothesis as extremely unlikely doesn’t mean it’s ruled out.”

 Members of the World Health Organization (WHO) team tasked with investigating the origins of the coronavirus disease attend a February news conference in Wuhan, China.

Critical early data was withheld from investigators

When it comes to figuring out where a pandemic came from, some of the most critical clues can be found in the case files of a disease’s first victims. After Canada’s 2003 SARS outbreak, for instance, investigators were able to detail the moment-by-moment movements of Kwan Sui-Chu,

who was identified as Canada’s patient zero


It’s precisely this kind of early case data that the Chinese government has withheld from outside investigators, including the WHO team. In February, it emerged that China refused a request to turn over 174 health records from COVID-19’s first patients in Wuhan. “They showed us a couple of examples, but that’s not the same as doing all of them, which is standard epidemiological investigation,” Dominic Dwyer, an Australian representative on the team,

told the Wall Street Journal in February


What this means is that there was no reliable way to determine how early COVID-19 was spreading through Wuhan, and whether it had a single point of origin. A mysterious flu-like illness

swept through staff at the Wuhan Institute of Virology in the autumn of 2019

, according to WHO team member Marion Koopman. The new WHO report found 92 cases of Wuhan patients with COVID-19-like symptoms in October 2019, weeks before the first cases officially recognized by the Chinese government. In both instances, investigators had to rely on Chinese assurances that serological tests had shown no link to COVID-19.

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Source: National Post Quebec Nordiques