The White House warned the World Health Organization on Saturday not to be influenced by the Chinese government in conducting its investigation into the origin of the deadly coronavirus.
“We have deep concerns about the way in which the early findings of the COVID-19 investigation were communicated and questions about the process used to reach them,” White House National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said in a statement.
“It is imperative that this report be independent, with expert findings free from intervention or alteration by the Chinese government.”
Mr. Sullivan also said Beijing should make available all data regarding the outbreak to virus investigators.
“To better understand this pandemic and prepare for the next one, China must make available its data from the earliest days of the outbreak,” he said.
“Going forward, all countries, including China, should participate in a transparent and robust process for preventing and responding to health emergencies — so that the world learns as much as possible as soon as possible.”
The work of the WHO “has never been more important,” Mr. Sullivan said and noted the United States’ “deep respect” for its virology experts fighting the pandemic.
Reversing the Trump administration’s decision to leave the WHO, the Biden administration has reengaged the organization.
“But re-engaging the WHO also means holding it to the highest standards,” Mr. Sullivan said. “And at this critical moment, protecting the WHO‘s credibility is a paramount priority.”
Critics have charged that China coopted the WHO, which mishandled early responses to the coronavirus pandemic by falsely announcing the virus was not transmittable to humans and urging no travel restrictions on China.
WHO investigators announced last week at the end of a tour of potential virus origin facilities in Wuhan, China, that they regarded as very unlikely the theory that the virus escaped from a Wuhan laboratory and urged an end to following that hypothesis.
On Friday in Geneva, WHO Director Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus walked back that apparent dismissal, telling reporters that questions have been raised about some of the four theories being dismissed.
“Having spoken with some members of the team I wish to confirm that all hypotheses remain open and require further analysis and studies,” Mr. Tedros said.
The four theories include a natural outbreak from bats to humans, a transmission of the virus from bats to a host animal and then humans, and a leak from one of two laboratories in Wuhan that have engaged in extensive research on bat viruses. The WHO team also is investigating the Chinese government’s assertion that the virus was introduced into China on frozen-food parcels.
An international team of WHO virologists announced Feb. 9 that the deadly pathogen behind the pandemic began in Wuhan, but experts were unable to pinpoint the origin after consultations with Chinese counterparts.
China has vehemently denied that the virus escaped from the Wuhan Institute of Virology, where bat coronavirus work was conducted.
One of the WHO team members, Peter Daszak, of the New York-based EcoHealth Alliance, has conducted extensive U.S.-government funded research at the Wuhan institute.
Reflecting Chinese government statements, Mr. Daszak has dismissed the notion that the virus leaked from the Wuhan laboratory as a conspiracy theory.
Mr. Daszak’s presence on the WHO team has raised concerns about a conflict of interest that could undermine the investigative team’s credibility in conducting the virus origin inquiry.
In a tweet, Mr. Daszak dismissed U.S. intelligence made public by the State Department on the virus origin as unreliable.
“Please don’t rely too much on US intel: increasingly disengaged under Trump & frankly wrong on many aspects,” he stated, adding “don’t forget it’s ‘TRUST’ then VERIFY’!”
The State Department, however, reported in January that there is circumstantial evidence indicating the virus escaped from the Wuhan Institute of Virology.
The evidence includes several workers from the institute who were sickened with COVID-like symptoms prior to the known outbreak of the disease; research at the lab on a bat virus that is 96% similar to the SARS-Cov-2, the formal name for the virus, and links between the institute and the Chinese military, which has conducted bio-warfare research there since at least 2017.
“Despite the WIV presenting itself as a civilian institution, the United States has determined that the WIV has collaborated on publications and secret projects with China‘s military,” the State Department report said. “The WIV has engaged in classified research, including laboratory animal experiments, on behalf of the Chinese military since at least 2017.”
WHO team leader Peter Ben Embarek, a Danish food safety and animal disease expert, said initial findings from the team suggest the virus was introduced by an intermediary animal host but noted further study is needed.
Mr. Embarek said the team concluded “the laboratory incidents hypothesis is extremely unlikely to explain the introduction of the virus to the human population.”
Bats appear to be the likely origin of the virus, but the investigative team said there were no bats present at a Wuhan wild animal market initially thought to be the source of the outbreak.
China has promoted its own conspiracy theory about the virus beginning. Beijing has said the virus was brought to China on frozen food packaging, a claim virus experts have dismissed as extremely unlikely.
The first known victim of COVID-19 appeared at a Wuhan hospital on Dec. 1. He had no connection to the wild animal market.