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COVID-19 lab leak theory needs study, but origins unclear

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More than two years after coronavirus was detected in China and after at least 6.3 million deaths have been counted worldwide from the pandemic, the World Health Organisation is recommending in its strongest terms yet that a deeper probe is required into whether a lab accident may be to blame.

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That stance marks a sharp reversal of the United Nations health agency’s initial assessment of the pandemic’s origins, and comes after many critics accused the WHO of being too quick to dismiss or underplay a lab-leak theory that put Chinese officials on the defensive.

The WHO concluded last year that it was “extremely unlikely” COVID-19 might have spilled into humans in the city of Wuhan from a lab.

Many scientists suspect the coronavirus jumped into people from bats, possibly via another animal.

Yet in a report released on Thursday, the WHO’s expert group said “key pieces of data” to explain how the pandemic began were still missing.

The scientists said the group would “remain open to any and all scientific evidence that becomes available in the future to allow for comprehensive testing of all reasonable hypotheses”.

The WHO’s expert group also noted that since lab accidents in the past have triggered some outbreaks, the highly politicised theory could not be discounted.

The report could revive accusations that the WHO initially was too accepting of Chinese government explanations early in the outbreak, which ultimately killed millions of people, sickened millions more, forced dozens of countries into lockdown and upended the world economy.

Investigations by the Associated Press found that some top WHO insiders were frustrated by China during the initial outbreak even as the WHO heaped praise on Chinese President Xi Jinping.

They were also upset over how China sought to clamp down on research into the origins of COVID-19.

WHO’s expert group said WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus sent two letters to senior Chinese government officials in February requesting information, including details about the earliest human cases of COVID-19 in the city of Wuhan.

It is unclear whether the Chinese officials responded.

The experts said no studies were provided to the WHO that assessed the possibility of COVID-19 resulting from a laboratory leak.

To investigate whether COVID-19 might have been the result of a lab accident, the WHO’s experts said interviews should be conducted “with the staff in the laboratories tasked with managing and implementing biosafety and biosecurity”.

– AP

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