Origins of Covid-19

WHO seeks more information on Covid-19 origins, as China cooperation stalls

The Wuhan Institute of Virology is at the center of theories that Covid-19 leaked from a lab
The Wuhan Institute of Virology is at the center of theories that Covid-19 leaked from a lab HECTOR RETAMAL AFP/File

A top World Health Organization official said on Monday that the WHO cannot compel China to divulge more data on Covid-19's origins, adding that the UN body will propose further investigations into the source of the virus.

Advertising

Pressed by a reporter on how the WHO will "compel" China into being more open, Mike Ryan, director of the agency's emergencies programme, said at a press conference that the "WHO doesn't have the power to compel anyone in this regard.

"We fully expect cooperation, input and support of all of our member states in that endeavour," Ryan said.

There are competing theories: that the virus jumped from animals, possibly starting with bats, to humans, or that it escaped from a laboratory in Wuhan, China. Members of a WHO team that visited China earlier this year hunting for Covid-19's origins have said they did not have access to all data, fueling continued debate over the country's transparency.

Conspiracy theory?

But while the "lab origin" was initially discarded as a conspiracy theory, it has started to gain momentum among mainstream observers. 

The "lab theory" was first proposed by two Chinese researchers, Xiao Botao and Lei Xiao from the South China University of Technology. On 6 February, just after Covid-19 had developed into a global phenomenon, they published a paper saying that “the killer virus probably originated from a laboratory in Wuhan”.

That paper was quickly retracted, and the researchers wrote a letter to the Wall Street Journal saying that the conclusions were premature. The paper disappeared from the internet, and is only accessible through the Internet Archive.

The claims kept on coming. In April, French doctor Luc Montagnier, who received the 2008 Nobel Prize for Physiology for his discovery of the HIV-Aids virus, confirmed in a podcast with medical website Pourquoi Docteur, that the Covid-19 virus was indeed a laboratory construct based on the structure of the HIV virus.

In this June 5, 2006 file photo, French scientist Luc Montagnier speaks during an interview in Paris. Three European scientists shared the 2008 Nobel Prize in medicine on Monday, Oct. 6, 2008 for separate discoveries of viruses that cause AIDS and cervical cancer, breakthroughs that helped doctors fight the deadly diseases.
In this June 5, 2006 file photo, French scientist Luc Montagnier speaks during an interview in Paris. Three European scientists shared the 2008 Nobel Prize in medicine on Monday, Oct. 6, 2008 for separate discoveries of viruses that cause AIDS and cervical cancer, breakthroughs that helped doctors fight the deadly diseases. ASSOCIATED PRESS - JACQUES BRINON

Attacked and discredited

His comments may have been inspired by work by Indian researcher Prashant Pradhan and nine of his colleagues at the Kusuma School of Biological Sciences in New Delhi.

In a paper published in February 2020, they indicated the “uncanny similarity” between elements found in the Covid-19 and HIV viruses, saying the parallels were “unlikely to be fortuitous” and certainly warranted further investigation. 

But the Indian report was attacked and discredited by Chinese researchers and later withdrawn, while the remarks by Montagnier were severely criticised by France’s scientific community.

China’s health ministry meanwhile, aggressively pushed the theory that the virus originated in the wetmarket in Wuhan, showing as evidence the possibly most cited scientific work on Covid-19’s origins “The Proximal Origin of SARS-Cov-2” co-authored by Professor Kristian Andersen, an immunologist with Scripps Research, that also states its research “clearly shows that SARS-CoV-2 is not a laboratory construct or a purposefully manipulated virus”.

Some of the earliest known cases of Covid-19 had links to a wholesale traditional food market in the Chinese city of Wuhan
Some of the earliest known cases of Covid-19 had links to a wholesale traditional food market in the Chinese city of Wuhan Hector RETAMAL AFP/File

People's Liberation Army

But the lab-theory persisted. A 272-page book published in August, and titled Cina COVID 19. La Chimera che ha cambiato il Mondo (China COVID 19. The chimera that changed the world) by Guiseppe Tritto, president of the Paris-based World Academy of Biomedical Sciences and Technologies says his research proves that China’s virologists, in close cooperation with China’s People’s Liberation Army, successfully developed Covid-19 in the Wuhan lab, with, he says, the help of “French and US scientists”. However, the WABT website does not function, and there are no clear links to verify the claim. 

Similar allegations, made by Alina Chan, a molecular biologist who works with the Broad Institute in Cambridge, Massachusetts, have had their moment in the media spotlight

And yet another study, this one by Dr. Yan Limeng, a post-doctoral fellow with Hong Kong University, which claims to reveal smoking gun evidence, was rejected because it was not peer reviewed, and it was published by the “Rule of Law Society,” run jointly by Chinese millionaire-in-exile and Beijing critic Guo Wengui, and former Donald Trump Chief Strategist Steve Bannon.

Turning point

Turning point came when WHO’s director himself, Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus of Ethiopia said, after a controversial investigation by a WHO team that did not bring any conclusive evidence on Covid's origins, that “as far as WHO is concerned all hypotheses remain on the table”.

This in turn triggered calls, most strongly by the Biden administration, that brought the "lab theory" back to the table. On 26 May, Biden said in a statement that he had given US intelligence agencies 90 days to come up with a report that would point out where the Covid-19 virus comes from - but as China has consequently barred access to thorough investigation by outside parties, the chances of this ever happening remain extremely slim. Biden's hope that China will "participate in a full, transparent, evidence-based international investigation and provide access to all relevant data and evidence" will probably be in vain.

Daily newsletterReceive essential international news every morning