Report

WHO Says COVID-19 Likely Started With Animals, Not Laboratory Leak

The long-awaited report is unlikely to quell concerns about China’s influence over the investigation.

A World Health Organization official speaks to health workers in Liberia.
A World Health Organization instructor teaches new health workers during a training session in Monrovia, Liberia, on Oct. 3, 2014. John Moore/Getty Images

A report set to be released Tuesday by the World Health Organization (WHO) into the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic points to animals as the likely origin of the coronavirus and determines that a leak from a Chinese laboratory would be “extremely unlikely,” according to a copy of the report obtained by Foreign Policy.

The long-awaited report is the most detailed account yet of what international experts know about how the coronavirus first began spreading in central China in late 2019 and then exploded globally in 2020, infecting more than 128 million people and causing the deaths of nearly 2.8 million worldwide.

The report offers little new evidence on the precise origin of the virus but details researchers’ conclusions on the likeliest theories of how the pandemic first spread. If researchers can gain a better understanding of how COVID-19 first took off, it could help prevent future pandemics, experts said.

But not everyone sees the WHO report as the final say. China, which initially tried to cover up the spread of the virus within its borders in the critical early weeks of the outbreak, has lashed out at criticism that it is responsible for the pandemic. U.S. officials during the Trump administration accused WHO of covering for China, leading former President Donald Trump to formally withdraw the United States from the international body at the height of the pandemic.

Other researchers conclude that the United States can’t lay the blame of its pandemic woes squarely at China’s feet. Studies released at a Brookings Institution conference last week concluded that the Trump administration could have avoided as many as 400,000 deaths and saved hundreds of billions of dollars with better public health strategies while it awaited a widespread rollout of vaccines.

President Joe Biden reversed Trump’s decision and rejoined WHO, but senior Biden officials have also cast doubt on whether the WHO report’s conclusions are objective, alleging that the Chinese government could have tried to alter the conclusions of the report.

“We’ve got real concerns about the methodology and the process that went into that report, including the fact that the government in Beijing apparently helped to write it,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken told CNN in an interview that aired Sunday.

U.S. lawmakers also joined in their criticism ahead of the report’s release. “The WHO should never have allowed the Chinese Communist Party [CCP] to have such a heavy hand in drafting this report,” Rep. Michael McCaul, the top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said in a statement. “A report censored by the CCP is worse than no report at all because it allows the CCP to continue to spread misinformation about the virus and cover up the role they played in allowing it to spread. If we want to prevent the next pandemic, we need an accurate, objective, and trustworthy assessment of the origins of the virus.”

The 123-page report is unlikely to satisfy skeptics critical of the heavy hand exercised by the Chinese government during the investigation. The 28-day study in Wuhan, conducted this year, was led by a multidisciplinary team of scientists including 17 from China, most of whom work for the state, and 17 drawn from a number of WHO member countries. The Chinese scientists conducted much of the initial research, which was then presented to their international counterparts during their visit to Wuhan. During the trip in January and February, Chinese officials refused to share crucial raw data with investigators, leading to tense exchanges that at times descended into shouting matches, the New York Times reported.

Concerns about the integrity of the WHO-led investigation prompted a small group of scientists to issue an open letter calling for a further independent investigation into the pandemic’s origins.

The biggest unanswered questions are still where and when the virus first spread and whether it jumped from one animal to another before infecting humans. The Huanan wet market in Wuhan, which traded live animals, was initially singled out by Chinese authorities due to a cluster of cases among people who frequented the market. While the virus was found in dozens of environmental samples taken at the market when it closed, the report noted that there was not enough conclusive evidence to pinpoint it as ground zero of the outbreak. Another lingering mystery are reports from Europe of COVID-19 cases being retroactively identified as early as November 2019. The WHO team reviewed these studies and suggested further investigation of these potential early detections.

Chinese officials have seized on these discoveries and an array of conspiracy theories about the virus’s origins, blaming imported frozen food and the U.S. military, to deflect criticism over their secretive handling of the outbreak.

Amid escalating tensions with Beijing over trade and national security, Trump said last April that he was confident that the virus had leaked from the Wuhan Institute of Virology, a view that Trump’s director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Robert Redfield, promoted in an interview with CNN that aired Friday.

In an unusual public statement issued last year, the U.S. intelligence community, which monitors disease outbreaks, said it did not believe that the virus was man-made or genetically engineered and that it was investigating whether the outbreak was the result of zoonotic spread from animals or an accidental leak from the Wuhan lab.

Matthew Kavanagh, the director for global health policy and politics at Georgetown University’s O’Neill Institute, said squabbling among rival powers at WHO will only weaken the international body’s efforts to prevent future pandemics.

“We may not know the true source of this virus for years, if ever,” he said. “In the meantime, we need a stronger, more capable WHO, not one disabled by being caught in great-power conflict.”

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

Amy Mackinnon is a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @ak_mack

Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch

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