Updated Aug 26, 2021 - Health

WHO experts: "Window is closing" on study into origins of COVID-19

A man walks past the entrance of the World Health Organization, marked by its logo
A man enters the headquarters of the World Health Organization (WHO) on June 15, 2021, in Geneva. Photo: Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Experts studying the origins of COVID-19 for the World Health Organization (WHO) warned that the study has stalled and the "window of opportunity" is closing to trace the virus' origins.

Why it matters: The scientists warn in an essay in the journal Nature that any further delay "will render some of the studies biologically impossible," hampering understanding of the origins of the pandemic.

  • Understanding the origins of the coronavirus and how it spread can help prevent future pandemics.

Driving the news: The Chinese government rejected the WHO's follow-up investigation as recently as July and has impeded the investigation, according to the report.

  • China's government "was and is still reluctant to share raw data" with the investigative team, the report in Nature states.

Details: "[The] window is rapidly closing on the biological feasibility of conducting the critical trace-back of people and animals inside and outside China. SARS-CoV-2 antibodies wane, so collecting further samples and testing people who might have been exposed before December 2019 will yield diminishing returns," per the scientists' report.

  • The essay called for the "scientific community and country leaders to join forces to expedite the phase 2 studies detailed here, while there is still time."

Of note: The Biden administration has conducted its own investigation into COVID's origins, "including whether it emerged from human contact with an infected animal or from a laboratory accident."

  • A White House official on Wednesday acknowledged receipt of the findings of that study, and said that an "unclassified summary of key judgments" would be made public "soon."
  • Nearly two dozen AAPI civil rights groups last week warned the administration that such a study "will put our communities at risk" and legitimizes the "lab leak" conspiracy theory.
  • Thousands of anti-Asian hate incidents have been reported since March 2020, nearly half including anti-Chinese or anti-immigrant rhetoric, according to the organization Stop AAPI Hate.

What they're saying: Fu Cong, a Chinese Foreign Ministry director general, accused the U.S. on Wednesday of "politicizing" the matter in order to blame China's government, AP notes.

  • Fu said at a briefing that "scapegoating China cannot whitewash the U.S."
  • "If they want to baselessly accuse China, they better be prepared to accept the counterattack from China," he said, per AP.
  • Fu added that if WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus "believes that we should not rule out the hypothesis of a lab leak ... he needs to go to the U.S. labs."

Editor's note: This article has been updated with comment from Fu.

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