The World Health Organization has prompted renewed friction with the Chinese Communist Party after a new report refused to rule out a theory that the COVID-19 pandemic originated because of a lab leak in China.
The Chinese government has remained on the defensive amid international criticism that the CCP has not been fully cooperative or transparent in global investigations into the origins of the virus. The prevailing theory among many scientists is that the virus originated in wild animals and migrated to humans, also known as zoonotic transmission, but others argue SARS-CoV-2 most likely started at the Wuhan Institute of Virology.
The Scientific Advisory Group for the Origins of Novel Pathogens, the 27-member scientific advisory group assembled by the WHO, said in its first report out Thursday that members are missing “key pieces of data that are not yet available for a complete understanding of how the COVID-19 pandemic began.”
“The SAGO has agreed, apart from three objections, that it remains important to consider all reasonable scientific data that is available either through published or other official sources to evaluate the possibility of the introduction of SARS-CoV-2 into the human population through a laboratory incident,” the report says.
Three members of the advisory group, Drs. Yungui Yang, Vladimir Dedkov, and Carlos Morel — from China, Russia, and Brazil, respectively — were the sole dissenters who said further investigation into the lab leak was not necessary, maintaining that there is no new scientific evidence to question the conclusion of a 2021 report.
Yungui, also the deputy director of the Beijing Institute of Genomics, previously participated from the Chinese side in the WHO’s first joint mission in early 2021, which attempted to dismiss the lab leak possibility.
The Chinese government, meanwhile, slammed the implication that the lab leak theory still holds water. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said Friday the theory was a politically motivated lie driven by “anti-China” sentiments.
“The lab leak theory is totally a lie concocted by anti-China forces for political purposes, which has nothing to do with science,” Zhao said. “We always supported and participated in science-based global virus tracing, but we firmly opposed any forms of political manipulation.”
He reiterated the unsubstantiated argument that the virus originated in a U.S. military lab, citing “highly suspicious laboratories such as Fort Detrick.”
The State Department told the Washington Examiner last year that the United States “condemns the PRC’s false, baseless, and unscientific claims which undermine the spirit and purpose of an impartial origins investigation.”
The new SAGO report marked a departure from a March 2021 report, in which a WHO team sent to China said a lab leak was possible but “extremely unlikely.” The WHO-China study contended that a jump from animals to humans was most likely, but it was largely dismissed due to a lack of access to key data and Chinese influence over the investigation. Meeting minutes from discussions between lab scientists and the WHO-China team reveal lab leak concerns were referred to as “conspiracy theories.”
In July 2021, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus admitted there was a “premature push” to dismiss the lab escape possibility.
Scientists consulting with the U.S. government early in the pandemic in 2020 believed COVID-19 originating from a lab in Wuhan was possible or even likely, but emails indicate Dr. Anthony Fauci and then-National Institutes of Health Director Francis Collins worked to shut the hypothesis down.
The Office of the Director of National Intelligence released an assessment in the summer of 2021 stating that one U.S. intelligence agency assessed with “moderate confidence” that the virus most likely emerged from a Chinese government lab in Wuhan, while four U.S. spy agencies and the National Intelligence Council believe with “low confidence” that the virus most likely has a natural origin.