11 February 2021

We can’t rely on a WHO Covid inquiry choreographed by China

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Where did Covid come from?

More than a year after the first cases we are still far from answering this crucial question. Frustratingly, this week’s joint press conference from the World Health Organization and the Chinese government offered more confusion than clarity.

China initially opposed the inquiry altogether and blocked investigators from visiting the site of the outbreak. They ultimately relented but have continued to choreograph the inquiry’s membership, terms of reference, movements and pronouncements.

Despite strong evidence to the contrary, the Chinese government continues to maintain that the virus may not have even started on its territory. They have put forward various conspiracy theories, including that it was a US biological weapon, and more recently officials have suggested Covid may have arrived from a foreign mink or via imported frozen food.

The “most likely” origin of Covid-19, as stated by the inquiry panel, remains zoonotic spillover via an intermediary host species: bats to pangolins, or another species, then on to humans. Another possibility is a direct transmission from bats to humans.

But even this theory is unproven. Scientists have been unable to find evidence of Covid-19 in animal products at the Huanan seafood market – and, in any case, the earliest cases had no connection to the market. Nor, according to Chinese authorities, has Covid-19 been identified in samples of bats in Hubei province or in livestock, poultry or wild animals across China.

The other two theories under consideration are imported frozen food and a laboratory leak. The former thesis, a recent favourite of the Chinese government, remains on the table despite a lack of credible evidence. Meanwhile, the inquirers have declared the idea of a laboratory leak is “highly unlikely” because of a lack of evidence.

But laboratory leaks are not impossible events, even from highly secured locations. In 2004, the original SARS virus twice leaked out of the Chinese Institute of Virology in Beijing. In 2007, a leak from the Merial Animal Health facility at Pirbright was the “probable” origin of an outbreak of foot and mouth disease (FMD). We also know that the Wuhan Institute of Virology was doing experiments on bat coronaviruses. It therefore appears eminently sensible to continue investigating the laboratory leak hypothesis along with other theories.

The WHO investigators are entertaining the implausible China-backed theory of foreign importation while dismissing the China-critical theory of a laboratory leak as “extremely unlikely” – undermining their legitimacy and the pursuit of truth in the process. (The Australian on the investigatory panel, Professor Dominic Dwyer, has broken ranks by declaring it most likely started in China.)

This isn’t the first time the WHO has shown a willingness to uncritically accept China’s official positions. WHO head Tedros Adhanom has repeatedly praised China’s “cooperation and transparency”. It is well documented, however, that authorities in Wuhan censored social media, blocked the release of medical reports, and detained and punished whistleblower doctors, including Li Wen­liang who ultimately succumbed to the virus.

In mid-January 2020, the WHO echoed China’s official position that there was “no clear evidence of human-to-human transmission”. These claims, which delayed the world’s response to the virus, came despite clear and growing evidence to the contrary.

The Associated Press have documented how authorities, including President Xi Jinping, waited six days to inform the public about the risk of human transmissibility. In the meantime, they allowed tens of thousands to attend mass banquets and millions to travel in and out of the region. The Chinese government also inexplicably sat on the genomic sequence of the virus for ten days, and waited weeks to provide patient and case information, creating internal frustrations within the WHO.

Now, despite the plethora of lies and obstruction from China’s government, the WHO inquiry is relying on reports by Chinese officials, rather than mounting a truly independent investigation. Additionally, as Alina Chan and Matt Ridley explained in the Wall Street Journal, the WHO’s investigatory team is plagued by potential conflicts of interest: one member, Dr Peter Daszak, has strong links to the Wuhan Institute of Virology and signed a statement last February to “condemn conspiracy theories suggesting that Covid-19 doesn’t have a natural origin”.

China’s response to Covid-19 was both predictable and precedented. During the 2002-3 original SARS outbreak, China also initially withheld information and did little to fight the virus. Historically, communist and hard-left regimes, from the Soviet Union to East Germany, Cuba and Venezuela have been hostile to any kind of scrutiny. A one party state inevitably prioritises survival of the regime over openness, criticism and honesty that could undermine their power. From the Chernobyl nuclear reactor disaster to the Holodomor famine that killed millions in Ukraine, local officials are incentivised to hide the truth to avoid responsibility, while the central government obfuscates to avoid reputational damage.

Though far from perfect, liberal democratic systems do allow officials and politicians to be held accountable for mistakes by a free media, and ultimately, the public at an election. Meanwhile, scientists are independent and able to express their opinions without fear of being jailed for not following the party line. In communist systems, these accountability mechanisms are nonexistent. The result is poorer outcomes.

Contrast China’s approach with the UK’s openness and transparency in response to the emergence of the Kent variant and testing new treatments, with the UK’s scientists offering important support the global response to the virus. The UK even accepted that this would mean other countries shutting borders to avoid the threat, something China and the WHO did not accept early last year.

The WHO has shamefully been sucked into China’s orbit. For many scientists this is likely part of a well- intentioned effort to maintain access and dialogue. But it has created an issue of trust. How can the world trust the results of an inquiry by an organisation that has shown a repeated willingness to uncritically accept Chinese Communist Party propaganda?

The origins of Covid-19 may forever remain a mystery. It is possibly an unanswerable question. The shame will not be in failing to find an answer, but in never allowing the question to be properly investigated. We owe this to the millions of people who have lost loved ones, had their lives uprooted, and suffered in so many ways over the last year.

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Matthew Lesh is Head of Research at the Adam Smith Institute.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.