WHO says it may be ‘last chance’ to find COVID origins

By Stephanie Nebehay and Pushkala Aripaka

GENEVA (Reuters) -The World Health Organization (WHO) said on Wednesday its newly formed advisory group on dangerous pathogens may be “our last chance” to determine the origins of the SARS-CoV-2 virus and called for cooperation from China.

The first human cases of COVID-19 were reported in the central Chinese city of Wuhan in December 2019. China has repeatedly dismissed theories that the virus leaked from one of its laboratories and has said no more visits are needed.

A WHO-led team spent four weeks in and around Wuhan earlier this year with Chinese scientists, and said in a joint report in March that the virus had probably been transmitted from bats to humans through another animal but further research was needed.

WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus has said that the investigation was hampered by a dearth of raw data pertaining to the first days of the outbreak’s spread and has called for lab audits.

The WHO on Wednesday named the 26 proposed members of its Scientific Advisory Group on the Origins of Novel Pathogens (SAGO). They include Marion Koopmans, Thea Fischer, Hung Nguyen and Chinese animal health expert Yang Yungui, who took part in the joint investigation in Wuhan.

DOZENS OF STUDIES NEEDED

Maria van Kerkhove, WHO technical lead on COVID-19, voiced hope that there would be further WHO-led international missions to China which would engage the country’s cooperation.

She told a news conference that “more than three dozen recommended studies” still needed to be carried out to determine how the virus crossed from the animal species to humans.

Reported Chinese tests for antibodies present in Wuhan residents in 2019 will be “absolutely critical” to understanding the virus’s origins, van Kerkhove said.

Mike Ryan, WHO’s top emergency expert, said the new panel may be the last chance to establish the origin of SARS-CoV-2, “a virus that has stopped our whole world”.

The WHO was seeking to “take a step back, create an environment where we can again look at the scientific issues,” he said.

Chen Xu, China’s ambassador to the UN in Geneva, told a separate news conference the conclusions of the joint study were “quite clear,” adding that as international teams had been sent to China twice already, “it is time to send teams to other places.”

“I do believe that if we are going to continue with the scientific research I think it should be a joint effort based on science not by the intelligence agencies,” Chen said. “So if we are going to talk about anything, we are doing the whole business with the framework of SAGO”.

(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva and Pushkala Aripaka in Bengaluru; writing by Stephanie Nebehay; Editing by Bernadette Baum)

WHO backs rollout of malaria vaccine for African children

By Maggie Fick and Aaron Ross

NAIROBI (Reuters) -The World Health Organization (WHO) said on Wednesday the only approved vaccine against malaria should be widely given to African children, potentially marking a major advance against a disease that kills hundreds of thousands of people annually.

The WHO recommendation is for RTS,S – or Mosquirix – a vaccine developed by British drugmaker GlaxoSmithKline.

Since 2019, 2.3 million doses of Mosquirix have been administered to infants in Ghana, Kenya and Malawi in a large-scale pilot program coordinated by the WHO. The majority of those whom the disease kills are aged under five.

That program followed a decade of clinical trials in seven African countries.

“This is a vaccine developed in Africa by African scientists and we’re very proud,” said WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.

“Using this vaccine in addition to existing tools to prevent malaria could save tens of thousands of young lives each year,” he added, referring to anti-malaria measures like bed nets and spraying.

Malaria is far more deadly than COVID-19 in Africa. It killed 386,000 Africans in 2019, according to a WHO estimate, compared with 212,000 confirmed deaths from COVID-19 in the past 18 months.

The WHO says 94% of malaria cases and deaths occur in Africa, a continent of 1.3 billion people. The preventable disease is caused by parasites transmitted to people by the bites of infected mosquitoes; symptoms include fever, vomiting and fatigue.

The vaccine’s effectiveness at preventing severe cases of malaria in children is only around 30%, but it is the only approved vaccine. The European Union’s drugs regulator approved it in 2015, saying its benefits outweighed the risks.

“This is how we fight malaria, layering imperfect tools on top of each other,” said Ashley Birkett, who leads global malaria vaccine work at Path, a non-profit global health organization that has funded the development of the vaccine with GSK and the three-country pilot.

Another vaccine against malaria, developed by scientists at Britain’s University of Oxford and called R21/Matrix-M, showed up to 77% efficacy in a year-long study involving 450 children in Burkina Faso, researchers said in April, but it is still in the trial stages.

GSK also welcomed the WHO recommendation.

“This long-awaited landmark decision can reinvigorate the fight against malaria in the region at a time when progress on malaria control has stalled,” Thomas Breuer, Chief Global Health Officer, said in a statement.

GSK shares held steady in New York following the announcement, which came after the close of trading in its London-listed shares.

FUNDING CHALLENGE

The recommendation was jointly announced in Geneva by the WHO’s top advisory bodies for malaria and immunization, the Malaria Policy Advisory Group and the Strategic Advisory Group of Experts on Immunization.

Experts said the challenge now would be mobilizing financing for production and distribution of the vaccine to some of the world’s poorest countries.

GSK has to date committed to produce 15 million doses of Mosquirix annually, in addition to the 10 million doses donated to the WHO pilot programs, up to 2028 at a cost of production plus no more than 5% margin.

A global market study led by the WHO this year projected demand for a malaria vaccine would be 50 to 110 million doses per year by 2030 if it is deployed in areas with moderate to high transmission of the disease.

The GAVI vaccine alliance, a global public-private partnership, will consider in December whether and how to finance the vaccination program.

“As we’ve seen from the COVID vaccine, where there is political will, there is funding available to ensure that vaccines are scaled to the level they are needed,” said Kate O’Brien, Director of WHO’s Department of Immunization, Vaccines and Biologicals.

A source familiar with planning for the vaccine’s development said the price per dose was not yet set, but would be confirmed after GAVI’s funding decision and once there is a clear sense of demand for the vaccine.

The WHO’s decision had personal meaning for Dr. Rose Jalong’o, a vaccinology specialist at the Kenyan health ministry.

“I suffered from malaria as a child and during my internship, and during my clinical years I attended to children in hospital because of severe malaria who needed blood transfusion and unfortunately some of them died.”

“It’s a disease I have grown up with and, seeing all this in my lifetime, it’s an exciting time.”

(Reporting by Maggie Fick in Nairobi and Aaron Ross in Dakar; Editing by Katharine Houreld, Mark Potter and Emelia Sithole-Matarise)

Taliban fire in air to scatter hundreds of protesters in Kabul

(Reuters) – Taliban gunmen fired in the air on Tuesday to scatter protesters in the Afghan capital Kabul, witnesses said, as video showed scores scurrying to escape volleys of gunfire.

Hundreds of men and women shouting slogans such as “Long live the resistance” and “Death to Pakistan” marched in the streets to protest against the Taliban takeover. Neighboring Pakistan has deep ties with the Taliban and has been accused of assisting the Islamist group’s return to power – charges it denies.

“The Islamic government is shooting at our poor people,” one panic-stricken woman on the street says over sounds of gunfire in a video clip shown on Iranian television news. There were no immediate reports of injuries, however.

The Taliban’s rapid advance across Afghanistan as U.S. forces pulled out last month triggered a scramble to leave by people fearing reprisals.

U.S.-led foreign forces evacuated about 124,000 foreigners and at-risk Afghans, but tens of thousands were left behind.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the United States was in contact with about 100 Americans who were still in Afghanistan.

About 1,000 people, including Americans, have been stuck in the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif for days awaiting clearance for charter flights to leave, an organizer told Reuters, blaming the delay on the U.S. State Department.

Blinken, holding talks in Qatar, a key interlocutor with the Taliban, said the problem was one of documents.

“My understanding is that the Taliban have not denied exit to anyone holding a valid document, but they have said those without valid documents, at this point, can’t leave,” he told reporters.

“Because all of these people are grouped together, that’s meant that flights have not been allowed to go … We are not aware of anyone being held on an aircraft, or any hostage-like situation.”

AIRPORT RESTART

At the same news conference, Qatari Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani said no deal had yet been reached with the Taliban on how Qatar and its partner Turkey could get Kabul airport running again.

“We hope in the next few days we can get to a level where the airport is up and running for passengers and for humanitarian aid as well,” he said.

Turkey says it wants to provide security inside the airport to protect any Turkish staff and safeguard operations, but that the Taliban have insisted no foreign forces can be present.

On Monday, the Islamist militants claimed victory in the Panjshir valley, the last province holding out against it, and promised to name a government soon.

Pictures on social media showed Taliban members standing in front of the Panjshir governor’s compound after days of fighting with the National Resistance Front of Afghanistan (NRFA), commanded by Panjshiri leader Ahmad Massoud.

Massoud denied that his force, consisting of remnants of the Afghan army as well as local militia fighters, was beaten.

“We are in Panjshir and our resistance will continue,” he tweeted. He said he was safe but did not say where.

The Taliban have repeatedly sought to reassure Afghans and foreign countries that they will not return to the brutality of their last reign two decades ago, marked by violent public punishments and the barring of women and girls from public life.

But more than three weeks after seizing Kabul, they have yet to set out their plans.

Asked whether Washington would recognize the Taliban, U.S. President Joe Biden told reporters at the White House on Monday: “That’s a long way off.”

STUDENTS SEGREGATED

Teachers and students at universities in Afghanistan’s largest cities – Kabul, Kandahar and Herat – told Reuters that female students were being segregated in class with curtains, taught separately or limited to some campus areas.

“Putting up curtains is not acceptable,” Anjila, a 21-year-old female student at Kabul University, said by telephone, adding that women had sat apart from males in classrooms before the Taliban took over, but without barriers.

“I really felt terrible when I entered the class … We are gradually going back to 20 years ago.”

The conflict in Afghanistan, coupled with drought and coronavirus, has left 18 million people – almost half the population – in need of humanitarian aid, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) said.

It said tens of thousands of families had headed for relief camps in urban areas, but found they had neither food nor income.

“Basic services in Afghanistan are collapsing and food and other lifesaving aid is about to run out,” Jens Laerke, spokesperson for the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), told a news conference in Geneva, urging more aid ahead of an international donor conference on Sept. 13.

The World Health Organization is liaising with Qatar on deliveries of urgently needed medical supplies, WHO regional emergency director Rick Brennan said.

Drought and war have forced about 5.5 million Afghans to flee their homes, including more than 550,000 newly displaced in 2021, the International Organization for Migration says.

Western powers say they are prepared to send humanitarian aid, but that broader economic engagement depends on the shape and actions of the Taliban government.

(Reporting by Reuters bureaus; Writing by Clarence Fernandez, Raju Gopalakrishnan and Kevin Liffey; Editing by Alex Richardson)

No evidence that Ivory Coast patient had Ebola, says WHO

(Reuters) -New testing has found no evidence that the woman in Ivory Coast who tested positive earlier this month for Ebola actually had the virus, the World Health Organization (WHO) said on Tuesday.

“WHO considers that the patient did not have Ebola virus disease and further analysis on the cause of her illness is ongoing,” it said in a statement.

The positive result was found by a lab in Ivory Coast but subsequent testing in France came back negative, WHO said.

The initial test led Ivory Coast on Aug. 14 to declare its first Ebola outbreak in over 25 years. The woman had travelled to Ivory Coast’s commercial capital Abidjan from northern Guinea, hundreds of kilometers (miles) away.

More than 140 of the woman’s contact were listed in Guinea and Ivory Coast but none of them developed symptoms or tested positive, WHO said.

Ebola typically kills about half of those it infects, although vaccines and new treatments have proven highly effective in reducing fatality rates.

(Reporting by Aaron Ross; Editing by Leslie Adler and Sandra Maler)

Ivory Coast begins Ebola vaccinations after case confirmed in Abidjan

FILE PHOTO: A health worker fills a syringe with Ebola vaccine before injecting it to a patient, in Goma, Democratic Republic of Congo, August 5, 2019. REUTERS/Baz Ratner/File Photo

By Loucoumane Coulibaly

ABIDJAN (Reuters) -Ivory Coast begin vaccinating health workers in the commercial capital Abidjan against Ebola on Monday after a case of the deadly virus was confirmed over the weekend.

An 18-year-old woman tested positive on Saturday after travelling by bus to Abidjan from neighboring Guinea. It is Ivory Coast’s first confirmed case of Ebola in 25 years.

Workers at the hospital in Abidjan where the woman was admitted were the first to receive vaccinations as the health ministry officially launched its vaccination campaign. The country has 5,000 doses available, the ministry said.

In total, health authorities have identified nine people the woman came into contact with, including three family members and six hospital staffers, the World Health Organization (WHO) told partners in a report. The woman and one suspected Ebola case are in hospital, it said.

The WHO has said it is deeply concerned about the virus’ presence in Abidjan, a densely-populated city of more than 4 million people.

Ebola spreads through contact with body fluids and typically kills about half of those it infects, although vaccines and new treatments have proved highly effective in reducing fatality rates.

In Guinea, the health ministry said on Monday that it would begin vaccinating, although it did not say when. The country was declared free of Ebola on June 19, after a four-month outbreak in the south killed 12 people.

Authorities believe the woman who tested positive travelled from northern Guinea by bus, passing through the Nzerekore region in the southeast, where the last outbreak began.

She then crossed Guinea’s southern border into Ivory Coast and reached Abidjan several hundred kilometers farther south on Aug. 11. She was hospitalized the next day.

WHO said preliminary genetic sequencing showed a close match between her case and the 2014–2016 Ebola outbreak, which killed a record 11,300 people. That epidemic originated in southeastern Guinea before spreading to Liberia and Sierra.

Last week, Guinea confirmed one death from the Marburg virus, West Africa’s first case of the highly infectious hemorrhagic fever which is similar to Ebola.

(Reporting by Loucoumane Coulibaly in Abidjan and Saliou Samb in Conakry; Writing Cooper Inveen; Editing by Aaron Ross, Bernadette Baum and Jonathan Oatis)

WHO seeks to take political heat out of virus origins debate

By Emma Farge

GENEVA (Reuters) – The World Health Organization said on Friday it was setting up a new group to trace the origins of the coronavirus, seeking to end what it called “political point scoring” that had hampered investigations.

The inability of the WHO to say where and how the virus began spreading has fueled tensions among its members, particularly between China, where COVID-19 cases were first identified in Wuhan in late 2019, and the United States.

The WHO called for all governments to cooperate to accelerate studies into the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic and “to depoliticize the situation.”

It specified that a new advisory group called the International Scientific Advisory Group for Origins of Novel Pathogens would support “the rapid undertaking” of further studies.

“We should work all together. You, me, everyone wants to know the origin of worst pandemic in a century,” WHO spokesperson Fadela Chaib said at a U.N. briefing on Friday.

Washington on Friday welcomed the WHO plan, noting the “emphasis on scientific-based studies and data driven efforts to find the origins of this pandemic so that we can better detect, prevent and respond to future disease outbreaks.”

President Joe Biden in late May ordered aides to find answers on COVID-19 origins and report back in 90 days.

In its final report, written jointly with Chinese scientists, a WHO-led team that spent four weeks in and around the city of Wuhan in January and February said that the virus had probably been transmitted from bats to humans through another animal. It said that a leak from a laboratory was “extremely unlikely” as a cause.

However, in a documentary broadcast in his native Denmark on Thursday, the WHO mission leader Peter Ben Embarek said that the lab hypothesis merited further study. Ben Embarek could not be reached by Reuters for further comment on Friday.

A WHO official said that its statement on advancing the virus origins study bore no relation to those remarks, noting that the Ben Embarek interview was filmed months ago.

China said it has never rejected cooperation on tracing COVID-19 origins, state media quoted the country’s vice foreign minister as saying.

(Reporting by Emma Farge, Jacon Gronholt-Pedersen and Gabriel Crossley; Editing by Keith Weir and Jon Boyle)

U.S. Senate passes bill to help Taiwan regain WHO status

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Senate passed a bill late on Thursday calling on the State Department to submit a plan to help Taiwan regain its observer status at the World Health Organization, one of several U.S. bids to boost Taiwan as it faces pressure from Beijing.

Taiwan is excluded from most global organizations such as the WHO, the U.N. health agency, because of the objections of China, which considers the island one of its provinces and not a separate country.

The legislation, passed by unanimous consent, was sponsored by Senators Bob Menendez, the Democratic chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and Jim Inhofe, the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee.

The two are also co-chairmen of the Senate Taiwan Caucus.

“The U.S. must continue to stand by Taiwan, and do more to reaffirm our support for our ally’s international engagement,” Menendez said in a statement on Friday.

The measure directs the Secretary of State to establish a strategy for obtaining observer status at the World Health Assembly, the decision-making body of the WHO.

The House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee approved a similar bill earlier this year, but there has been no word on when the measure might come up for a vote in the full House.

(Reporting by Patricia Zengerle; Editing by Andrew Heavens)

U.S. plans to give extra COVID-19 shots to at-risk Americans – Fauci

By Trevor Hunnicutt and Carl O’Donnell

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The United States is working to give additional COVID-19 booster shots to Americans with compromised immune systems as quickly as possible, as cases of the novel coronavirus continue to rise, top U.S. infectious disease expert Dr. Anthony Fauci said Thursday.

The United States is joining Germany, France and Israel in giving booster shots, ignoring a plea by the World Health Organization to hold off until more people around the world can get their first shot.

U.S. regulators need to fully authorize the COVID-19 vaccines or amend their emergency use authorizations before officials can recommend additional shots, but the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is working to make third doses available sooner under certain circumstances, officials said at a July meeting.

“It is extremely important for us to move to get those individuals their boosters and we are now working on that,” Fauci said on a press call, adding that immunocompromised people may not be sufficiently protected by their existing COVID-19 vaccinations.

Fauci said rising cases resulting from the spread of the contagious Delta variant in the United States can be turned around with additional vaccinations.

The Biden administration has been eager to thaw opposition by some Americans, including those who distrust the government, to taking the vaccine as the highly infectious Delta variant sweeps the country.

Seven U.S. states with the lowest COVID-19 vaccination rates account for half of the country’s new cases and hospitalizations in the last week, the White House said on Thursday.

The states are Florida, Texas, Missouri, Arkansas, Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi, according to President Joe Biden’s COVID-19 coordinator, Jeff Zients, who spoke at the press briefing

Of those, Florida and Texas account for about a third of new coronavirus cases and an even higher share of hospitalizations in the country.

COVID cases are up about 43% over the previous week and daily deaths are up more than 39%, according to U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky, who also spoke on the call.

The United States hit a six-month high for new COVID cases with over 100,000 infections reported on Wednesday, according to a Reuters tally.

Some 864,000 vaccinations have been given in the past 24 hours, the highest since early July, the White House said.

Zients said the Biden administration supports U.S. businesses and other institutions requiring that their employees get vaccinated.

He added that the White House is considering requiring foreign visitors to be vaccinated as it plans to eventually reopen international travel but said it had made no final decision.

(Reporting by Jeff Mason, Susan Heavey, Carl O’Donnell and Trevor Hunnicutt; editing by Jonathan Oatis and Lisa Shumaker)

WHO’s pandemic project faces cash crunch amid vaccine, oxygen shortages

By Francesco Guarascio

BRUSSELS (Reuters) – The World Health Organization (WHO) is seeking $11.5 billion in urgent funding to fight the more infectious Delta variant of the coronavirus, a draft report seen by Reuters shows, amid worries wealthy nations are partly bypassing its COVID-19 programs.

A large portion of the cash being requested from the WHO’s partners is needed to buy tests, oxygen and face masks in poorer nations, says the document which is expected to be released this week. And a quarter of it would be to buy hundreds of millions of vaccines for them that would otherwise go elsewhere.

The paper, still subject to changes, outlines the results and financial needs of the Access to COVID-19 Tools Accelerator (ACT-A), the program co-led by the WHO to distribute fairly COVID-19 vaccines, drugs and tests across the world.

The program, set up at the start of the pandemic, remains vastly underfunded, and its coordinators are now acknowledging it will remain so as many governments look to address global COVID needs “differently,” an ACT-A official told Reuters, speaking on condition of anonymity.

As a result, it has cut by nearly $5 billion its total request for funds, the document shows. But it still needs $16.8 billion, almost as much as what has been raised so far, and $7.7 billion is required urgently.

The document also calls for a further $3.8 billion, on top of the $7.7 billion, to take up options for 760 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines that would be delivered next year.

“These options to buy need to be exercised in the coming months or vaccine doses will be lost,” the document warns.

WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus last week said that $7.7 billion were urgently needed, but did not give a breakdown of planned spending, and did not say how much extra money was needed for vaccines.

The WHO was not immediately available to comment.

The latest cash crunch will underscore concerns about the long-term future of the program, which has struggled to secure supplies and equipment to tame a pandemic that has killed more than 4.2 million.

The vaccine portion of the project, called COVAX, is increasingly reliant on donations from wealthy nations, rather than its own supplies, after key manufacturer India restricted exports of shots to boost domestic vaccinations.

But the United States, European Union and Japan have also donated vaccines directly to countries as part of their vaccine diplomacy drives. Japan has also said it’s a quicker process than going through COVAX.

Some countries have provided equipment directly to others too. Last month, Australia said it would donate oxygen-related equipment, antigen test-kits as well as vaccines to Indonesia.

The plea for cash comes as a review of the ACT-A gets under way, with France, Germany and Canada among the countries steering the process. A report on the program’s results and shortcomings is expected in September by consultancy Dalberg Global Development Advisors, the ACT-A official said.

OXYGEN NEEDS

Among ACT-A’s immediate needs are $1.2 billion for oxygen to treat seriously ill COVID-19 patients in poorer countries where supplies are low, the report says.

Oxygen has moved up the priority list given vaccines are not available, the ACT-A official said, highlighting the repercussions from the shortage of shots as the Delta variant spreads to 132 countries.

COVAX has delivered about 180 million vaccines, far short of its 2 billion target by the end of this year.

Oxygen is needed to “control the exponential death surges caused by the Delta variant,” the document says.

Global demand for medical oxygen is currently more than a dozen times greater than before the pandemic, the document says, but many countries are struggling to access sufficient supplies.

The urgent need for the most basic treatment against COVID-19 one and a half years into the pandemic shows how little has been done to combat the virus in most of the world, the ACT-A official said, noting: “There hasn’t been much progress. What was urgent three months ago is still urgent now.”

“Inequity in access to life-saving COVID-19 tools has never been more apparent,” the document says.

In rich nations, most people have already been vaccinated, including the younger who are less at risk from COVID-19, whereas in poorer nations the most vulnerable are still waiting for a first dose and there is a lack of basic materials, such as face masks and other personal protective equipment (PPE).

“Avoidable death and unsustainable pressure on health systems is mounting in many countries due to insufficient access to oxygen and PPE,” the document says.

At least $1.7 billion are urgently needed to buy protective devices for healthcare workers in poorer nations, the document says, and another $2.4 billion are needed to boost testing in low-income countries.

(Reporting by Francesco Guarascio @fraguarascio; Editing by Josephine Mason and Mark Potter)

China rejects WHO plan for study of COVID-19 origin

By Gabriel Crossley

BEIJING (Reuters) -China rejected on Thursday a World Health Organization (WHO) plan for a second phase of an investigation into the origin of the coronavirus, which includes the hypothesis it could have escaped from a Chinese laboratory, a top health official said.

The WHO this month proposed a second phase of studies into the origins of the coronavirus in China, including audits of laboratories and markets in the city of Wuhan, calling for transparency from authorities.

“We will not accept such an origins-tracing plan as it, in some aspects, disregards common sense and defies science,” Zeng Yixin, vice minister of the National Health Commission (NHC), told reporters.

Zeng said he was taken aback when he first read the WHO plan because it lists the hypothesis that a Chinese violation of laboratory protocols had caused the virus to leak during research.

The head of the WHO said earlier in July that investigations into the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic in China were being hampered by the lack of raw data on the first days of spread there.

Zeng reiterated China’s position that some data could not be completely shared due to privacy concerns.

“We hope the WHO would seriously review the considerations and suggestions made by Chinese experts and truly treat the origin tracing of the COVID-19 virus as a scientific matter, and get rid of political interference,” Zeng said.

China opposed politicizing the study, he said.

The origin of the virus remains contested among experts.

The first known cases emerged in the central Chinese city of Wuhan in December 2019. The virus was believed to have jumped to humans from animals being sold for food at a city market.

In May, U.S. President Joe Biden ordered aides to find answers to questions over the origin, saying that U.S. intelligence agencies were pursuing rival theories potentially including the possibility of a laboratory accident in China.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki said on Thursday that the Biden administration is “deeply disappointed” in China’s decision and told reporters that “their position is irresponsible and, frankly, dangerous.”

Zeng, along with other officials and Chinese experts at the news conference, urged the WHO to expand origin-tracing efforts beyond China to other countries.

“We believe a lab leak is extremely unlikely and it is not necessary to invest more energy and efforts in this regard,” said Liang Wannian, the Chinese team leader on the WHO joint expert team. More animal studies should be conducted, in particular in countries with bat populations, he said.

However, Liang said the lab leak hypothesis could not be entirely discounted but suggested that if evidence warranted, other countries could look into the possibility it leaked from their labs.

One key part of the lab leak theory has centered on the Wuhan Institute of Virology’s (WIV) decision to take offline its gene sequence and sample databases in 2019.

When asked about this decision, Yuan Zhiming, professor at WIV and the director of its National Biosafety Laboratory, told reporters that at present the databases were only shared internally due to cyber attack concerns.

(Reporting by Gabriel Crossley and Stella Qiu; Additional reporting by Jeff Mason and Trevor Hunnicutt in Washington; Editing by Shri Navaratnam, Robert Birsel, Ana Nicolaci da Costa and Steve Orlofsky)