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)

China criticizes U.S. ‘scapegoating’ as COVID origin report to be released

BEIJING (Reuters) -China criticized on Wednesday the U.S. “politicization” of efforts to trace the origin of the coronavirus, demanding a U.S. military laboratory be investigated, shortly before the release of a U.S. intelligence community report on the virus.

The U.S. report is intended to resolve disputes among intelligence agencies considering different theories about how the coronavirus emerged, including a once-dismissed theory about a Chinese laboratory accident.

“Scapegoating China cannot whitewash the U.S.,” Fu Cong, director-general of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ arms control department, told a briefing.

A White House official said on Wednesday that President Joe Biden had been briefed on the classified report. “We look forward to having an unclassified summary of key judgments to share soon,” the official said.

U.S. officials say they did not expect the review to lead to firm conclusions after China stymied earlier international efforts to gather key information on the ground.

China has said a laboratory leak was highly unlikely, and it has ridiculed a theory that coronavirus escaped from a lab in Wuhan, the city where COVID-19 infections emerged in late 2019, setting off the pandemic.

China has instead suggested that the virus slipped out of a lab at the Army’s Fort Detrick base in Maryland in 2019.

“It is only fair that if the U.S. insists that this is a valid hypothesis, they should do their turn and invite the investigation into their labs,” said Fu.

On Tuesday, China’s envoy to the United Nations asked the head of the World Health Organization for an investigation into U.S. labs.

A joint WHO-Chinese team visited the Wuhan Institute of Virology but the United States said it had concerns about the access granted to the investigation.

When asked if China would stop talking about the Fort Detrick laboratory if the U.S. report concluded the virus did not leak from a Chinese lab, Fu said: “That is a hypothetical question, you need to ask the U.S.”

Fu said China was not engaged in a disinformation campaign.

(Reporting by Gabriel Crossley; additional reporting by Steve Holland in Washington; editing by 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)

China’s Wuhan to test all 12 million residents as Delta variant spreads

By Ryan Woo

BEIJING (Reuters) – China’s Wuhan city will test its 12 million residents for the coronavirus after confirming its first domestic cases of the highly transmissible Delta variant.

Wuhan, where the virus first emerged in late 2019, had reported no local coronavirus cases since mid-May last year but on Monday authorities confirmed three cases of the Delta variant. The strain has been found in a handful of provinces and big cities including Beijing over the past two weeks.

“To ensure that everyone in the city is safe, city-wide nucleic acid testing will be quickly launched for all people to fully screen out positive results and asymptomatic infections,” Wuhan official Li Qiang told a news briefing.

Parts of an industrial and technology zone were sealed off, a measure rarely seen in the city since a lockdown last year.

The new cases in Wuhan, along with infections in the nearby cities of Jingzhou and Huanggang since Saturday, were linked to cases in the city of Huaian in Jiangsu province, said Li Yang, vice director of the Hubei province disease control center.

The outbreak in Jiangsu is believed to have begun in the provincial capital of Nanjing in late July, with the Delta variant mostly likely introduced on a flight from Russia, officials have said.

China brought the epidemic under control last year and fought just a few localized outbreaks after that.

Emergency response levels were lowered and people outside areas hit by virus could go about their lives largely as normal, which may have contributed to the latest outbreak.

A Nanjing official said on Monday that even after the first cases were reported there, some shops did not rigorously check customers’ digital health credentials and some did not wear masks properly.

Jiangsu officials said the root cause of the Nanjing outbreak was “laxity of the mind”.

The tally of local cases in China since July 20, when the first Nanjing infections were found, stood at 414 as of Monday.

Numerous cities in southern China and a few in the north including Beijing have reported infections, and authorities have advised against non-essential travel, conducted mass testing, and sealed off some higher-risk neighborhoods.

‘LOOPHOLES’

The first of the latest flurry cases in Nanjing were cleaners at the Nanjing Lukou International Airport who were infected, possibly due to poor sanitization and protection after disinfecting a plane from Russia, a city official said last week.

China’s aviation regulator has demanded more frequent testing and insisted on the use of protective gear.

Police in the nearby Yangzhou said the outbreak in that city’s center got worse after a 64-year-old woman who left her locked-down Nanjing neighborhood to visit family in Yangzhou, where she entered restaurants and shops.

Airports in Nanjing and Yangzhou have suspended domestic flights.

In the central city of Zhengzhou, most of the 13 local cases reported since July 31 were linked to a hospital that treats patients arriving from outside China, with the strain in the first two infections bearing a similarity to that in cases recently arriving from Myanmar, an official said.

“This outbreak mainly occurred inside the hospital, involving people including cleaning staffers and medical workers,” said Wang Songqiang, director of Zhengzhou’s disease control center.

“This outbreak has … exposed the loopholes at a few hospitals in their in-hospital infection control,” Wang said.

The city of Zhangjiajie in the southern province of Hunan was hit by infections after carriers from outside the province attended a theatre performance where members of the audience sat next to each other, instead of at socially distanced intervals.

Zhangjiajie said on Tuesday that residents and tourists should not leave the city, effectively imposing a lockdown.

(Reporting by Ryan Woo, Liangping Gao and Roxanne Liu; Additional reporting by Beijing Newsroom; Editing by Kim Coghill)

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)

Fauci calls on China to release medical records of Wuhan lab workers

(Reuters) -Top U.S. infectious disease expert Dr. Anthony Fauci has called on China to release the medical records of nine people whose ailments might provide vital clues into whether COVID-19 first emerged as the result of a lab leak, the Financial Times reported on Thursday.

“I would like to see the medical records of the three people who are reported to have got sick in 2019. Did they really get sick, and if so, what did they get sick with?” the report quoted Fauci as saying about three of the nine.

The origin of the virus is hotly contested, with U.S. intelligence agencies still examining reports that researchers at a Chinese virology laboratory in Wuhan were seriously ill in 2019 a month before the first COVID-19 cases were reported.

However, Chinese scientists and officials have consistently rejected the lab leak hypothesis, saying the virus could have been circulating in other regions before it hit Wuhan and might have even entered China through imported frozen food shipments or wildlife trading.

A spokesman for China’s foreign ministry, Wang Wenbin, declined to comment directly on whether China would release the records of the nine but firmly denied that the laboratory was linked to the outbreak of COVID-19.

At a regular briefing on Friday, he referred to a March 23 statement from the Wuhan Institute of Virology that said no staff or graduates were confirmed to have contracted the virus.

Wang reiterated China’s position that reports of a lab leak are a “conspiracy theory.”

Financial Times reported that Fauci continues to believe the virus was first transmitted to humans through animals, pointing out that even if the lab researchers did have COVID-19, they could have contracted the disease from the wider population.

(Reporting by Eva Mathews in Bengaluru; Additional reporting by Cate Cadell in Beijing; Editing by Ramakrishnan M.)

What we know about the origins of COVID-19

By Deborah J. Nelson

(Reuters) -Scientists are revisiting a central mystery of COVID-19: Where, when and how did the virus that causes the disease originate?

The two prevailing competing theories are that the virus jumped from animals, possibly originating with bats, to humans, or that it escaped from a virology laboratory in Wuhan, China. The following is what is known about the virus’ origins.

WHY IS THE LAB IN WUHAN A FOCUS OF INTEREST?

The Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) is a high-security research facility that studies pathogens in nature with the potential to infect humans with deadly and exotic new diseases.

The lab has done extensive work on bat-borne viruses since the 2002 SARS-CoV-1 international outbreak, which began in China, killing 774 people worldwide. The search for its origins led years later to discovery of SARS-like viruses in a southwest China bat cave.

The institute collects genetic material from wildlife for experimentation at its Wuhan lab. Researchers experiment with live viruses in animals to gauge human susceptibility. To reduce the risk of pathogens escaping accidentally, the facility is supposed to enforce rigorous safety protocols, such as protective garb and super air filtration. But even the strictest measures cannot eliminate such risks.

WHY DO SOME SCIENTISTS SUSPECT A LABORATORY ACCIDENT?

To some scientists, the release of a dangerous pathogen via a careless lab worker is a plausible hypothesis for how the pandemic started and warrants investigation. The Wuhan lab, China’s leading SARS research facility, is not far from the Huanan Seafood Market, which early in the health crisis was cited as the most likely place where animal-to-human transmission of the virus may have taken place. The market was also the site of the first known COVID-19 super spreader event. Their proximity raised immediate suspicions, fueled by the failure so far to identify any wildlife infected with the same viral lineage and compounded by the Chinese government’s refusal to allow the lab-leak scenario to be fully investigated.

Scientists and others have developed hypotheses based on general concerns about the risks involved in live virus lab research, clues in the virus’ genome, and information from studies by institute researchers. Although the Wuhan lab’s scientists have said they had no trace of SARS-CoV-2 in their inventory at the time, 24 researchers sent a letter to the World Health Organization (WHO) urging a rigorous, independent investigation. The WHO’s first such mission to China this year failed to probe deeply enough, they wrote.

A U.S. State Department fact sheet, released before the WHO mission in the waning days of the Trump Administration, alleged, without proof, that several WIV researchers had fallen sick with symptoms consistent with COVID-19 or common seasonal illnesses before the first publicly confirmed case in December 2019.

A May 5, story by Nicholas Wade in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, said lab scientists experimenting on a virus sometimes insert a sequence called a “furin cleavage site” into its genome in a manner that makes the virus more infective. David Baltimore, a Nobel Prize-winning virologist quoted in the article, said when he spotted the sequence in the SARS-CoV-2 genome, he felt he had found the smoking gun for the origin of the virus.

WHAT ARE THE ARGUMENTS FOR ANIMAL-TO-HUMAN TRANSMISSION?

Many scientists believe a natural origin is more likely and have seen no scientific evidence to support the lab leak theory. Kristian G. Andersen, a scientist at Scripps Research who has done extensive work on coronaviruses, Ebola and other pathogens transmissible from animals to humans, said similar genomic sequences occur naturally in coronaviruses and are unlikely to be manipulated in the way Baltimore described for experimentation.

Scientists who favor the natural origins hypothesis have relied largely on history. Some of the most lethal new diseases of the past century have been traced to human interactions with wildlife and domestic animals, including the first SARS epidemic (bats), MERS-CoV (camels), Ebola (bats or non-human primates) and Nipah virus (bats).

While an animal source has not been identified so far, swabs of stalls in the wildlife section of the wildlife market in Wuhan after the outbreak tested positive, suggesting an infected animal or human handler.

HAS NEW INFORMATION EMERGED TO LEND CREDENCE TO ONE THEORY OVER ANOTHER?

The scientists’ March 4 letter to the WHO refocused attention on the lab-leak scenario, but offered no new evidence. Nor has definitive proof of a natural origin surfaced.

U.S. President Joe Biden on May 26 said his national security staff does not believe there is sufficient information to assess one theory to be more likely than the other. He instructed intelligence officials to collect and analyze information that could close in on definitive conclusion and report back in 90 days.

(Reporting by Deborah J. NelsonEditing by Bill Berkrot)

Chinese scientist says Beijing did share COVID-19 data with investigators

By Gabriel Crossley

BEIJING (Reuters) -A top Chinese medical expert said on Wednesday there was no factual basis to accusations that China did not share data with international researchers appointed by the World Health Organization to look into the origins of COVID-19.

Following the publication of the joint study into the origins of COVID-19 by China and the WHO on Tuesday, WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said China had withheld data from the international investigators.

But Liang Wannian, who was co-leader of the joint study, told reporters that researchers from both sides had access to the same data throughout the investigation and that the assertions about lack of access were not accurate.

“Of course, according to Chinese law, some data cannot be taken away or photographed, but when we were analyzing it together in Wuhan, everyone could see the database, the materials – it was all done together,” he said.

Responding to allegations that the expert panel did not have access to complete datasets and samples, Liang said no scientist ever had perfect information.

He also rejected complaints that the publication of the report had been repeatedly delayed, noting that “every sentence, every conclusion, every piece of data” needed to be verified by both sides before it could be released.

“Throughout we always upheld the principle of ‘quality comes first,'” said Liang, who is the head of a committee of experts on COVID-19 set up by China’s National Health Commission.

The joint study concluded that the most likely origin of COVID-19 was in animals, and probably passed through an intermediary species before it entered humans.

It also said more efforts were needed to see if COVID-19 could be traced back to wildlife farms in both China and southeast Asia.

Liang said China would continue to try to trace the origins of COVID-19, but the Chinese part of the joint research had been completed, and attention should now turn to other countries.

Tracing the origins of COVID-19 couldn’t be achieved overnight, he said.

“There are lots of diseases that have circulated for a long time and we still haven’t found their origins,” he said. “It still needs a lot of time.”

(Reporting by Gabriel Crossley; Writing by David Stanway; Editing by William Maclean and Andrew Heavens)

Data withheld from WHO team probing COVID-19 origins in China: Tedros

By Stephanie Nebehay and John Miller

GENEVA/ZURICH (Reuters) – Data was withheld from World Health Organization investigators who travelled to China to research the origins of the coronavirus epidemic, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said on Tuesday.

The United States, the European Union and other Western countries immediately called for China to give “full access” to independent experts to all data about the original outbreak in late 2019.

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

One of the team’s investigators has already said China refused to give raw data on early COVID-19 cases to the WHO-led team, potentially complicating efforts to understand how the global pandemic began.

“In my discussions with the team, they expressed the difficulties they encountered in accessing raw data,” Tedros said. “I expect future collaborative studies to include more timely and comprehensive data sharing.”

The inability of the WHO mission to conclude yet where or how the virus began spreading in people means that tensions will continue over how the pandemic started – and whether China has helped efforts to find out or, as the United States has alleged, hindered them.

“The international expert study on the source of the SARS-CoV-2 virus was significantly delayed and lacked access to complete, original data and samples,” Australia, Canada, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Israel, Japan, Latvia, Lithuania, Norway, Korea, Slovenia, Britain, the United States and the European Union said in a joint statement.

“NOT EXTENSIVE ENOUGH”

Although the team concluded that a leak from a Wuhan laboratory was the least likely hypothesis for the virus that causes COVID-19, Tedros said the issue required further investigation, potentially with more missions to China.

“I do not believe that this assessment was extensive enough,” he told member states in remarks released by the WHO. “Further data and studies will be needed to reach more robust conclusions.”

The WHO team’s leader, Peter Ben Embarek, told a press briefing it was “perfectly possible” the virus had been circulating in November or October 2019 around Wuhan, and so potentially spreading abroad earlier than documented so far.

“We got access to quite a lot of data in many different areas, but of course there were areas where we had difficulties getting down to the raw data and there are many good reasons for that,” he said, citing privacy laws and other restrictions.

Second phase studies were required, Ben Embarek added.

He said the team had felt political pressure, including from outside China, but that he had never been pressed to remove anything from its final report.

Dominic Dwyer, an Australian expert on the mission, said he was satisfied there was “no obvious evidence” of a problem at the Wuhan Institute of Virology.

The European Union called the study “an important first step” but renewed criticisms that the origin study had begun too late, that experts had been kept out of China for too long, and that access to data and early samples had fallen short.

In a statement, Walter Stevens, EU ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva, called for further study with “timely access to relevant locations and to all relevant human, animal and environmental data available”.

(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay, John Miller and Emma Farge; Editing by Mark Heinrich and Kevin Liffey)

WHO says COVID-19 probably passed from bats to humans through another animal: AP

(Reuters) – A joint WHO-China study on the origins of COVID-19 says that the virus was probably transmitted from bats to humans through another animal, and that a lab leak was “extremely unlikely” as a cause, the Associated Press reported on Monday.

The reported findings match what WHO officials have said in the past about their conclusions following a Jan-Feb visit to China.

Many questions remain unanswered, and the team proposed further research in every area except the lab leak hypothesis, the Associated Press reported, citing a draft copy it had obtained.

WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreysus acknowledged receipt of the report from the independent experts but declined to give details, telling a Geneva news briefing: “All hypotheses are on the table and warrant complete and further studies.”

The 400-page report, drawn up by the team which carried out a mission to the central Chinese city of Wuhan where the virus was first encountered in late 2019, is to be issued on Tuesday after diplomats from WHO’s 194 member states are briefed on its findings, Tedros said.

Germany’s international development minister Gerd Mueller, speaking to the same briefing after holding talks with Tedros, welcomed China’s cooperation with the probe.

The United States expects the WHO-led investigation to require further study of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, perhaps including a return visit to China, a senior U.S. official told reporters last week. He hoped it would be “based on science”.

The probe was plagued by delays, concern over access and bickering between Beijing and Washington, which under former U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration accused China of hiding the extent of the initial outbreak.

(Reporting by Nandakumar D in Bengaluru and Stephanie Nebehay and Emma Farge in Geneva; Editing by Himani Sarkar and Peter Graff)