Virus Origins: WHO Experts Call For Further Investigation of ‘Lab Leak’ Theory, More Chinese Data

( – More than a year after a World Health Organization-convened group of experts effectively discounted the possibility that the coronavirus causing COVID-19 could have leaked from a laboratory in Wuhan, another WHO-convened multinational team of scientists said in its first report released on Thursday that the theory needs “further investigations.”

Members of the Scientific Advisory Group for the Origins of Novel Pathogens (SAGO) said “it remains important to consider all reasonable scientific data that is available either through published or other official sources to evaluate the possibility of the introduction of SARS-CoV-2 into the human population through a laboratory incident.”

But they noted that “there has not been any new data made available to evaluate the laboratory as a pathway of SARS-CoV-2 into the human population.”

In order to assess the possibility of a lab origin, the SAGO experts said they would need access to, and be able to review evidence of, all coronavirus-related work at the labs, and examine the labs’ biosafety and biosecurity measures.

“Additional investigations should be carried out with the staff in the laboratories tasked with managing and implementing biosafety and biosecurity at laboratories … in the proximity of the original COVID-19 outbreak working with SARS-like viruses in Wuhan, China.”


In addition to that, investigations could “potentially” also be carried out with staff at laboratories “located worldwide where early COVID-19 cases have been retrospectively detected before 2020.”

The report said the investigations could include determining risks associated with the collection of specimens from bats or other wildlife sources and the potential for coronarivus infections of staff; evaluating scenarios where safety procedure breakdown could have led to possible lab-acquired infection; and determining if any breaches “may have resulted in escape and/or infection of staff members prior to December 2019 where early cases were detected in China.”

Three of the 27 members of SAGO – from China, Russia, and Brazil – dissented. A footnote in the report said it was the view of three individuals that “there is no new scientific evidence to question the conclusion” of the original finding, by the joint “WHO-China” team that visited Wuhan early last year.

That team’s conclusion that the “lab-leak” hypothesis was “extremely unlikely,” and not worth studying further, aligned with Beijing’s repeated denials that the virus could have spilled over from the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV), or the Wuhan Chinese CDC laboratory.

But it drew widespread skepticism, and months later WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus himself called it “premature.”

Tedros then announced that WHO was establishing a permanent expert body – SAGO – that would “play a vital role in the next phase of studies into the origins” of the coronavirus.

Its task is not to find the origins of SARS-CoV-2, but to advise on studies that will be necessary to gather evidence to better understand its origins, as well as the origins of future new pathogens and epidemics.

China remains highly sensitive about claims that a lab accident in Wuhan could have been a factor in the origins of the once-in-a-century pandemic, which has so far been blamed for more than 6.3 million deaths, more than one million of them in the United States.

Beijing insists that it did its part by allowing access to the labs during the original team’s visit, and that it’s time labs in the U.S. and elsewhere are examined as possible sources of the outbreak.

“Americans were smeared as ‘conspiracy theorists’ for asking whether COVID-19 came from a lab leak,” the five Republican members on the House select subcommittee on the coronavirus crisis said on their Twitter feed in response to the new report.

“Now, the WHO is asking the same questions. WE NEED ANSWERS.”

In their report, the SAGO scientists said that a zoonotic origin – a jump from animals to humans – remains the most likely explanation for the emergence of SARS-CoV-2

But so far, neither the original animal source, nor the intermediate host, nor the “spill-over event to humans” have been identified, they said.

The report carries a lengthy list of recommendations for further studies, including examinations of environmental samples collected at the animal market in Wuhan that was thought early on to be the likeliest source of the virus’ jump from animals to humans.

While China did provide some information in response to specific SAGO requests, the report says Tedros wrote to senior Chinese government officials twice in February to request further information. This related among other things to early investigations of suspected human cases in Wuhan, the testing of workers on farms that supplied the animal market, “and further information into the laboratory hypotheses.”

SAGO comprises 27 scientists based in countries around the world, including the United States, China, Russia, Germany, Britain, South Africa, the Philippines, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Denmark, India, Nigeria, Kenya, and Canada.


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