A joint WHO-China study of covid-19’s origins leaves much unclear

WEEKS AFTER a team of experts from China and the World Health Organisation (WHO) conducted a joint inquiry into the origins of covid-19, their report, released on March 30th, gave no clear verdict. It said the most probable explanation was that the virus had jumped from animals to humans through an intermediate animal host. But the scientific search for a definitive answer will remain challenging because of geopolitical tensions and China’s attempts at obfuscation.

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The report says it is “extremely unlikely” that the pathogen escaped from a lab in Wuhan (one is pictured), the central city where the first big outbreak of the disease occurred late in 2019. Indeed, it does not recommend further research into that possibility. Numerous other geneticists and virology experts disagree, saying the lab-leak theory remains plausible. Commenting on the report, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the WHO’s director-general, said the possibility of a laboratory incident required “further investigation”.

China has angrily denounced the laboratory-leak hypothesis as outright conspiracy-mongering. It will be as irritated by Dr Tedros’s remarks as it was pleased with the report’s strong downplaying of the possibility. China will be happy with the experts’ call for further study into the (very low) possibility that the virus can survive on packaging and other surfaces in shipments of frozen food, and go on to infect people. This idea is one that China has been eagerly promoting. It wants its citizens to believe—and the world at least to entertain the notion—that the virus originated outside China, even though scientists see scant evidence of that.

China’s fixation on the frozen-food theory has prompted it to take extraordinary measures to prevent the reimportation of the virus by this means (covid-19 has been all but eliminated inside the country). It has required onerous inspections of cold-chain shipments. Officials have suspended the rights of hundreds of suppliers to send frozen products to China.

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Occasionally, officials report the discovery of SARSCoV-2, the virus that causes covid-19, on frozen-food packaging. One such find, involving a beef product from Argentina, was made on March 28th at a warehouse in Tongliao, a city in the northern region of Inner Mongolia. It triggered an “emergency response”, with police and other officials mobilised to seal off the area, take people away for coronavirus tests and cleanse the site. “They’re putting a lot of energy into this unlikely but possible hypothesis, trying to elevate it for obvious reasons,” says Jamie Metzl, a former member of America’s National Security Council and a genetics expert.

The team’s report will do little to dispel widespread suspicions that China is co-opting the investigation process for political purposes and failing to provide adequate transparency. Risking China’s ire, Dr Tedros said the experts had faced difficulties in accessing raw data from their Chinese hosts. He insisted that future studies should “include more timely and comprehensive data sharing”. China, however, says it is being completely open. It also says the WHO should investigate whether the virus originated in America. As a new cold war develops, the fog is thickening.

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This article appeared in the China section of the print edition under the headline “Anywhere but here”

The Economist

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