Feb 10, 2021 - Economy

WHO's COVID probe in China raises more questions than it answers

WHO scientist Peter Ben Embarek. Photo: Hector Retamal/AFP via Getty Images

Initial findings by a WHO team in China investigating COVID-19's origins appear to echo Beijing's talking points.

The big picture: Identifying the true cause of the COVID-19 pandemic is key to controlling it and preventing the next one, but geopolitical disputes are getting in the way of science.

Driving the news: On Tuesday, a WHO team concluded a two-week trip to China with a press conference announcing their preliminary findings that it was "extremely unlikely" the virus originated in a lab.

  • The team said "the most likely pathway" was through an intermediary host species between humans and the virus' original animal reservoir, which is probably a bat.

Details: The possibility that the virus might have leaked from the Wuhan Institute of Virology — a theory that had been pushed by the Trump administration and at least entertained by a minority of scientists — was always an outlier, if only because we've repeatedly seen coronaviruses and other emerging pathogens jump from animals to humans.

  • But many experts have criticized the WHO team for ruling out further investigation into a lab leak with a press conference before compiling a full report with clear data.

Between the lines: It didn't escape notice that even as it dismissed the idea of a lab leak, the WHO team opened the door to the possibility that the virus actually originated outside of China, coming into the country via contamination of frozen food.

Our thought bubble: It's impossible to judge an investigation before its full findings are known, and the reality is that we may never know the true story of COVID-19's origins given the geopolitical stakes involved.

  • But this investigation was a chance to highlight the very real danger of spillover from labs doing high-tech work with animal viruses — a danger that is growing by the year — and it would be a mistake to squander it.
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