WHO report on coronavirus origins raises more questions, than it answers

Beijing Edited By: Gravitas deskUpdated: Mar 31, 2021, 11:12 PM IST

World Health Organisation Photograph:(AFP)

Story highlights

The question of the origin has still not been settled. This should have been a foregone conclusion. The world knows the pandemic began in Wuhan. But the WHO team that spent 27 days in Wuhan, still doesn't have the answers

385 days ago, the World Health Organisation declared coronavirus outbreak a pandemic. As of today, 128 million cases have been recorded. Close to three million people have died. 

This is one of the deadliest pandemics in human history but even after 385 days, the world doesn't know how it began.  

The question of the origin has still not been settled. This should have been a foregone conclusion. The world knows the pandemic began in Wuhan. But the WHO team that spent 27 days in Wuhan, still doesn't have the answers. 

Their probe was inconclusive. The much-anticipated report is finally out. It Is 124 page-long report, which is high on details but low on substance.  

In fact, the investigation raises more questions than it answers. Let's tell you the five key findings of this report. The team looked into three possibilities. One, the virus jumped from animals to humans. Two, it arrived in Wuhan through food chains. It's a claim that China has aggressively tried to push, but it hasn't found much support. And the third possibility the virus leaked from a lab.    

Now, the WHO team says, they found maximum evidence for the first possibility. That is, the virus jumped from animals to humans. So, that's the most likely cause, according to them. They say the virus probably emerged in bats, before spreading to humans through an 'intermediate animal'. What does that mean? What's the intermediate? They have no answers.  

In other words, the exact source of the virus is not clear. The WHO team says they do not have enough evidence to pinpoint the exact source yet. What about the role of animal markets? The so-called vet markets of China? No clear answers on that either.    

Remember, the initial confirmed cases were linked to the Huanan seafood market. The same market that China subsequently shut down. The WHO team found that many early cases had no clear connection to the Huanan market. So, probably, the virus was already spreading around Wuhan. 

But the question is, if the markets were not linked to the outbreak, why did China shut them down?  

And finally, the last key finding. And perhaps the most controversial one, the possibility of a lab leak.  

The WHO team says a leak is 'highly unlikely' but here comes the twist in the tale. Dr Tedros, Director General of the World Health Organisation made an interesting statement. On Tuesday, he was heard contradicting several of the key findings of the probe team. He said the lab leak might be the 'least likely hypothesis' but it still needs further investigation. Meaning, do not rule it out yet. 

"The team also visited several laboratories in Wuhan and considered the possibility that the virus entered the human population as a result of a laboratory incident. However, I do not believe that this assessment was extensive enough," said Tedros. 

In other words, this should be probed further. He also said the WHO is ready to deploy more resources for future investigations. He's what we think. we're already in the future. The investigations should have happened by now, the WHO has already botched up enough.  

But the fact that Dr Tedros is saying what he is, is welcome change. He also made a revelation, which technically wasn't a revelation.  

The WHO chief said, the probe team had difficulty in accessing raw data in Wuhan. Who was holding back that raw data? China.  

What is China's response to these statements? The same old denial. With Dr Tedros keeping the lab theory alive, Chinese experts today deflected all questions on the subject. 

When asked about the sharing of data, the Chinese scientist who was involved with the WHO team in Wuhan said some data can't leave country because of privacy reasons.  

Co-leader of WHO-China joint expert team, Liang Wannian, said, "Of course, according to Chinese law, some data cannot be taken away or photographed, but when we were analyzing it together in Wuhan, everyone could see the database, the materials - it was all done together. for example, some data that involves patient privacy and requires the patient to know and agree, this is a legal requirement. I think this is also a basic international rule."  

Imagine China talking about basic international rules. At the same time, Chinese diplomats remain very combative in their defence. 

High profile WHO member states have slammed it. On Tuesday, the United States and 13 other governments released a joint statement. The list includes the United Kingdom, Japan, South Korea and Australia, which also happens to be the first country that demanded an international investigation. These countries have questioned why China is withholding data. The report lacks crucial data, information and access. It represents a partial and incomplete picture.  

"There's a second stage in this process that we believe should be led by international, international and independent experts. They should have unfettered access to data. They should be able to ask questions of people who are on the ground at this point in time and that's a step that the who could take," said White House Press Secretary.  

The US wants the WHO to bring in independent experts to take this investigation forward. Needless to say Beijing is not warming up to that idea.