Coronavirus origin could be revealed within months if China released all data, WHO adviser says
Recent reports on origin of novel coronavirus were inconclusive
If China granted investigators full access to resources and data allowing for a thorough investigation into the coronavirus, experts could conceivably know its true origin in just a matter of months, Jamie Metzl, a member of a World Health Organization (WHO) advisory committee, told Fox News.
"From the earliest days following the outbreak, Chinese authorities have been systematically destroying biological samples, hiding databases and other records, imprisoning citizen journalists, and strictly enforcing a gag order prohibiting Chinese scientists from writing or saying anything about pandemic origins without prior government approval," Metzl said in a recent interview. "If we had, right now, full and unrestricted access to all of the relevant records, samples and key personnel inside of China, I believe there is a real possibility we could identify the source of the pandemic within a short number of months."
Metzl was a lead drafter and co-organizer of an open letter released by experts from around the world on April 30, addressed to the executive board of the WHO. The letter supports the call by WHO Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus for a full investigation of all COVID-19 origin hypotheses, including a lab-related incident.
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Metzl said a World Health Assembly resolution from last year had a "fatal error" in calling for a study of the zoonotic origins of the virus rather than for a full investigation into the origins of the pandemic.
"The Chinese understood what this language meant more than everybody else," he said. "This entire process stemming from that resolution wasn’t about figuring out how the pandemic began but about trying to prove one convenient hypothesis. That fatal error has colored much of the international response since. If we want a full investigation into the origins of COVID-19, we’ve got to call for one."
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Metzl suggested work is going on behind the scenes at the world health body regarding further studies, though plans have not yet been released to the public. Tarik Jašarević, a WHO spokesperson, declined Fox News’ requests for interviews.
A joint report was released in late March following a WHO-convened team of international experts’ study in Wuhan, the Chinese city where COVID-19 was first detected, from mid-January to mid-February. The findings, issued jointly by the WHO-convened independent expert committee and its Chinese counterparts, were inconclusive, with the joint research team listing introduction through an intermediary host followed by zoonotic transmission as "likely to very likely" the root of initial spread, and introduction through a laboratory incident as "extremely unlikely."
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Tedros followed in saying "all hypotheses remain on the table" and the source of the virus had not been identified.
"As far as WHO is concerned, all hypotheses remain on the table," Tedros previously said. "This report is a very important beginning, but it is not the end. We have not yet found the source of the virus, and we must continue to follow the science and leave no stone unturned as we do. Finding the origin of a virus takes time and we owe it to the world to find the source so we can collectively take steps to reduce the risk of this happening again. No single research trip can provide all the answers."
White House press secretary Jen Psaki joined a growing sea of voices skeptical of the report in March, saying the White House believes China had "not been transparent" in releasing its findings.
Psaki said medical experts and the global community "all deserve greater transparency." She said the report lacks crucial information and provides a "partial, incomplete picture" of the virus’s origin. She called on China and the WHO to allow international experts "unfettered access" to data and to allow them to ask questions of people on the ground at the time of the outbreak. Psaki said the White House believes it "doesn’t meet the moment."
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Meanwhile, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying in a briefing on March 31 warned that politicizing the issue would only hinder origin studies while suggesting the probe shift its focus to other countries, including a U.S. military laboratory at Fort Detrick, Md.
Metzl, who was among the first public figures to raise concerns early last year that the pandemic might have stemmed from an accidental lab incident, lauds Tedros for his "courage in defending the integrity of the scientific process and of the WHO itself."
"In the earliest days of the pandemic, a small number of us around the world recognized there was something significantly wrong in the way that the origin story was being told by the Chinese government, by a small number of highly influential virologists and epidemiologists, and in the international media," Metzl said. "It’s taken over a year of hard work to broaden the public conversation about pandemic origins. Our goal is not to point fingers but to get the correct answer."
The experts’ April 30 open letter, the third letter in a series pushing for a full investigation probing all possible origin hypotheses, critiques the joint committees’ initial study in China, including Chinese authorities’ power to veto participating members on the team, multiple conflicts of interest, "highly curated" conclusions fed to the team from the Chinese government counterpart and the teams’ failure to ask "basic common sense questions" related to the lab incident hypothesis, Metzl said.
The letter calls "on the World Health Organization and its Executive Board to fully address the recommendations and questions raised in this letter as a critical step toward protecting everyone on earth and future generations."
"Until we understand how this crisis began and address our greatest vulnerabilities, we will all be in grave and unnecessary danger," Metzl said. "Better to ask the tough questions now, even the uncomfortable ones, than to face another pandemic in the future that could have been avoided."
Fox News’ Alexandria Hein and Morgan Phillips contributed to this report.