LONDON— The World Health Organization sent international scientists to China to investigate the origins of the coronavirus. They said Wednesday that the search has stalled and that the window of opportunity for solving the mystery is “closing fast.”
Meanwhile, according to The Washington Post, a U.S. intelligence review ordered by President Joe Biden proved inconclusive about the virus’s origin, including whether it jumped from an animal to a human or escaped from a Chinese lab.
The WHO-recruited experts stated in a commentary published in the journal Nature that the origins investigation is at a “critical juncture” that requires urgent collaboration but has instead come to a halt. They noted, among other things, that Chinese officials are still hesitant to share some raw data, citing patient confidentiality concerns.
Earlier this year, WHO dispatched a team of experts to Wuhan, where the first human COVID-19 cases were discovered in December 2019, to investigate what caused the pandemic, which is now responsible for nearly 4.5 million deaths worldwide, with more than 10,000 people dying every day despite more than 5 billion doses of vaccine administered.
The WHO team concluded in their March analysis that the virus most likely jumped from animals to humans, and they described the possibility of a laboratory leak as “extremely unlikely.”
The WHO experts, on the other hand, stated that their report was only a first step and that “the window of opportunity for conducting this critical inquiry is closing fast: any delay will render some of the studies biologically impossible.”
They stated, for example, that “antibodies wane, so collecting additional samples and testing people who may have been exposed prior to December 2019 will yield diminishing returns.”
China said on Wednesday that officials should “concentrate on other possible avenues that may help trace the origin” of COVID-19, and that studies in other countries should be pursued.
Fu Cong, director-general of China’s Foreign Ministry, agreed that the search for the origins of COVID-19 had stalled, but said it wasn’t China’s fault.
He accused the United States of “hyping the lab leak theory” and attempting to shift blame to China, and he suggested that the coronavirus could be linked to high-level American research labs, suggesting that the US invite WHO to investigate some of its installations.
Marion Koopmans and her WHO-recruited colleagues identified a number of research priorities, including conducting larger antibody surveys to identify areas where COVID-19 was spreading undetected, both in China and elsewhere, testing wild bats and farm-raised animals as potential reservoirs of the virus, and investigating any credible new leads.
Other scientists are concerned that the best opportunities to collect samples may have passed them by in the first few weeks after some of the first human cases were linked to a Wuhan seafood market.
“Once you have wildlife traders shifting to other types of employment because they’re worried about whether they’ll be able to do this anymore, that window starts to close,” said Maciej Boni, a biology professor at Pennsylvania State University who has studied virus origins but was not part of the WHO team.
Nonetheless, Boni believes that scientists may be able to identify COVID-19’s animal source by looking for closely related viruses in species such as raccoon dogs, mink, or ground squirrels. However, he estimated that it would take about five years to conduct the necessary extensive research.
The search for the coronavirus’s origins has become a source of contention between the United States and China, with an increasing number of American experts calling for the two Wuhan laboratories near the seafood market to be investigated, which China has categorically denied and branded “scapegoating.”
In May, Biden directed that both the animal-to-human hypothesis and the lab leak theory be reviewed by US intelligence agencies for 90 days. Even WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Gheybreyesus said in July that rejecting the lab theory was premature, adding that research accidents are common.