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Time to get serious about uncovering the pandemic’s origins

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The leader of the international expert committee examining pandemic origins last week made a shocking revelation — in effect, that the global public was misled when the committee announced, in a Feb. 9 Wuhan, China, press event, that a lab incident origin was “extremely unlikely” and not worthy of further investigation. This revelation is an absolute game-changer that demands a significant revamping of international efforts for getting to the bottom of how the COVID-19 crisis began.  

The seeds of this debacle were planted last May, when an Australian proposal calling on the World Health Assembly (the governing board of state representatives overseeing the WHO) to authorize a full investigation into pandemic origins was replaced by a Chinese-supported resolution mandating a largely Chinese government-controlled and highly restricted joint study into the single hypothesis that the virus jumped from animals to humans in the wild or through the wildlife trade, and outside the context of research activities.

The “original sin” of this deeply flawed resolution was exacerbated by even more compromising terms of reference negotiated between the World Health Organization(WHO) and the Chinese government, which gave Chinese authorities veto power over who could be part of the international expert committee and the right to withhold essential data in many instances. 

After many months of delays forced by the Chinese government obfuscation, during which the Chinese authorities carried out a cover-up involving destroying samples, hiding records and gagging Chinese scientists, the international expert group arrived in Wuhan in January. After two weeks confined to their hotel rooms under strict quarantine, investigators had only two weeks of site visits in what amounted to a fully chaperoned, highly curated study tour. 

Chinese government control of the joint study process was made clear when one of the team’s first site visits was to Wuhan’s COVID-19 propaganda exhibition. While some members of the international committee described this visit as a way of showing respect to their Chinese hosts, the visit made clear who was calling the shots and set the tone for the entire, ill-fated process.

Although WHO Director General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus gave the international experts explicit instructions to get to the bottom of how this crisis began, regardless of the politics, members of this group seemingly saw their mission quite differently. 

Instead of demanding access to all relevant records, samples and personnel, the international committee gingerly negotiated what access was and was not possible with their Chinese government hosts.

Rather than seeing their mission as courageously probing pandemic origins on behalf of the international community, the international experts seem to have believed their mission was to compromise with Chinese authorities in exchange for table scraps. Although we later learned that members of this international team had internal conversations about how best to respond to Chinese obfuscation, none of this was made public. Even though access to critical raw data was repeatedly denied by the Chinese authorities, at no point did members of the international team threaten to call off the charade and leave China if those resources were not made available.

Worse, this group withheld their actual beliefs. According to an interview with Peter Ben Embarek, the leader of this international committee, released last week on Danish television, he and other committee members apparently believed it was more probable the pandemic could have started with an infected Wuhan lab worker and felt further investigation of Wuhan labs was merited. The Chinese authorities, however, were demanding that even the possibility of a lab incident origin not be mentioned in the Feb. 9 Wuhan press event or joint report. 

Outrageously, the members of the international committee decided to strike a deal with their Chinese government-affiliated counterparts. In exchange for the Chinese authorities agreeing that a possible lab incident could be mentioned at all, the international experts agreed to label a lab incident origin “extremely unlikely” and to recommend no further investigation of that hypothesis. 

While these international experts may have felt they were making a positive contribution, they had absolutely no right to horse-trade something so essential and to mislead the world. In doing so, they became tools of Chinese propaganda, which Chinese authorities essentially acknowledged

Although the international committee was independent and not controlled by the WHO, its affiliation with the international public health organization now threatens, even if unfairly, the credibility of the WHO itself.

To help make things right, the WHO has an important responsibility to demonstrate that the actions of this independent committee do not reflect the WHO, and to reaffirm the calls Tedros has been making for many months for transparency and accountability by China, including through a full audit of Wuhan labs

As a first step in this process, the WHO should terminate the participation of all current members of the independent international expert committee. Tedros is already, in effect, in the process of superseding this committee through the recent announcement of a new WHO Scientific Advisory Group for Origins of Novel Pathogens, but this termination will make even more clear that any political deal-making regarding something so critical as pandemic origins will not be tolerated. 

While the United States and international community should fully support Tedros and the WHO in these efforts, China’s actions and recent statements condemning Tedros and rejecting all plans for a next phase of the pandemic origins study make clear the Chinese government has no intention of allowing the kind of full investigation that is so urgently required.

That’s why the international community must immediately begin planning a parallel investigation process through a mechanism the Chinese government cannot block, possibly involving the G7, the OECD, or the community of democracies that President Biden has announced plans to convene.

The United States should also extend the Biden intelligence review indefinitely until the pandemic origins issue is resolved and establish a bipartisan national COVID-19 commission to examine how this crisis began and other failures across-the-board.

Although some people and countries may be tempted to sweep the origins issue under the carpet to focus on slowing the pandemic’s spread and strengthening global public health systems more generally, no safe future can be built on a foundation of misrepresentations and lies. Accountability today will establish the essential principle of accountability for tomorrow.

If we don’t do everything possible now to understand what went wrong and fix our biggest problems, we will remain unnecessarily at risk and future generations will almost certainly blame us for our cowardice.

Jamie Metzl is a technology futurist, a member of the World Health Organization international advisory committee on human genome editing, and founder and chair of OneShared.World, a global social movement focusing on facilitating global collective-action. He is the author of five books, including “Hacking Darwin: Genetic Engineering and the Future of Humanity” (2019). He previously served on the National Security Council and State Department during the Clinton administration and with the United Nations. The views expressed are his own. Follow him on Twitter: @jamiemetzl

Tags Coronavirus covid origins COVID-19 Jamie Metzl Joe Biden Pandemic Public health World Health Organization

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