Health

WHO chief urges transparency from China in COVID origin investigation

By Pakistan Forward and AFP

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A picture taken on May 8 shows a sign of the World Health Organisation (WHO) at the entrance of its headquarters in Geneva amid the COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak. [Fabrice Coffrini/AFP]

China is continuing to obfuscate an international investigation into the origins of the pandemic, as world health officials urge greater transparency.

Since the first cases of COVID-19 were detected in Wuhan in December 2019, the information out of China has been murky at best.

Critics have accused Beijing of downplaying the scale and scope of the outbreak when it first emerged, while some theorists speculate that the virus could have escaped from a lab at the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV).

World Health Organisation (WHO) chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus Thursday (July 15) urged China to be more co-operative in the next phase of investigations into the pandemic origins, demanding more access to raw data.

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WHO team member Peter Ben Embarek (C) and other members of the group arrive at Tianhe International Airport to leave Wuhan, Hubei province, China, on February 10, after the WHO team wrapped up its investigation into the origins of the COVID-19 coronavirus. [Hector Retamal/AFP]

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Members of the WHO team investigating the origins of the COVID-19 coronavirus leave the Wuhan Institute of Virology in Wuhan, Hubei province, China, on February 3. [Hector Retamal/AFP]

Speaking to reporters in Geneva, Tedros also acknowledged that a prior push to all but rule out the possibility that COVID-19 might have escaped from the WIV lab had been "premature".

He said that the WHO was laying the groundwork for moving forward with fresh investigations into COVID-19's origins, adding, "We hope there will be better co-operation to get to the bottom of what happened."

The United Nations health agency has been facing intensifying pressure for a new, more in-depth investigation of COVID-19's origins.

The WHO managed to send a team of independent, international experts to Wuhan only in January, more than a year after COVID-19 first surfaced there in late 2019.

One of the main challenges during the first phase of the investigation was "access to raw data... The raw data was not shared," said Tedros Thursday.

"And now we have designed the second phase of the study, and we are asking actually China to be transparent, to be open and co-operate, especially on the ... raw data that we asked for [in] the early days of the pandemic."

The long-delayed report after the first phase of the investigation was published in late March, and faced criticism for not evaluating the lab-leak theory more deeply -- the authors dedicated a mere 440 words of the report to discussing and dismissing it.

Tedros, who emphasised immediately after the report's publication that all theories remained on the table, Thursday reiterated that more investigation of the lab leak hypothesis was needed.

"There was a premature push" to rule out that theory, he said.

"We need information, direct information on what the situation of these labs was before, at the start of the pandemic."

'Culture of deception'

The latest denials come as the US State Department in January accused the WIV of engaging in "secret military activity".

"For more than a year, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has systematically prevented a transparent and thorough investigation of the COVID-19 pandemic's origin, choosing instead to devote enormous resources to deceit and disinformation," it said in a fact sheet published January 15.

"The CCP's deadly obsession with secrecy and control comes at the expense of public health in China and around the world," it said.

"The WIV has collaborated on publications and secret projects with China's military," the State Department said. "The WIV has engaged in classified research, including laboratory animal experiments, on behalf of the Chinese military since at least 2017."

The renewed attention on the WIV has spotlighted Dr. Shi Zhengli, a top Chinese virologist who directs the WIV's Centre for Emerging Infectious Diseases.

Even though she denied any connection with the Chinese military during a rare, unscheduled conversation with the New York Times in June, Shi has multiple connections with military officials, NBC News reported.

She and others collaborated with Chinese military scientist Tong Yigang on coronavirus research in the spring of 2018 and with Zhou Yusen in December 2019.

Zhou, a military scientist for the People's Liberation Army, filed a patent for a coronavirus vaccine on February 24, 2020 -- just five weeks after Beijing acknowledged human-to-human transmission of the virus, The Weekend Australian reported.

The revelation raises the possibility that the unnamed vaccine was being tested even before the Chinese regime publicly acknowledged the COVID-19 outbreak.

In another mystery, Zhou died under unknown circumstances in May 2020. Despite Zhou's status as an award-winning military scientist with connections to the WIV, the Chinese media did not report his death and published no tributes to his "heroic" work.

The strong working relationship between Shi and Zhou -- and the regime's silence regarding Zhou's death -- supports the theory that the WIV was engaged in "secret military activity", analysts say.

"I'm very confident that the military was funding a secret programme that did involve coronaviruses," David Asher, a former US State Department investigator, told NBC News. "I heard this from several foreign researchers who observed researchers in that lab in military lab coats."

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