Tong Yigang, professor at Beijing University of Chemical Technology, attends a news conference on the WHO-China joint study on the origins of Covid-19, in Beijing. Picture: Thomas Suen/Reuters
Tong Yigang, professor at Beijing University of Chemical Technology, attends a news conference on the WHO-China joint study on the origins of Covid-19, in Beijing. Picture: Thomas Suen/Reuters

WHO report on Covid-19 origin fails to satisfy China critics

By Opinion Time of article published Apr 6, 2021

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Helmo Preuss

The World Health Organization (WHO) released a 120-page report this week that the most likely path of the Covid-19 virus was from bats to another animal and then to humans, but the report failed to satisfy critics of China’s response to the pandemic.

Conspiracy theorists in particular claim that a “weaponised” virus was accidently released from a Wuhan laboratory, although the WHO report stated that a laboratory accident leakage was considered to be “extremely unlikely”.

The search had become highly politicised, with for example many Australian products being banned or facing additional tariff and non-tariff barriers in China after the Australian government was one of the first to call for an investigation into the origins of the virus.

Scientists across a broad political spectrum agree that establishing the virus’ transmission route is key to reducing the risk of future pandemics.

The WHO research in Wuhan was aimed at answering some of these questions as Covid-19 resulted in the worst pandemic in more than a century.

The resultant lockdowns to contain the spread of the virus then resulted in a global collapse in economic activity with only a few countries such as China able to register a positive economic growth rate.

In South Africa the economy shrunk by an unprecedented 7% in 2020. This was the worst collapse since national account records started here in 1949.

The joint international WHO team examined four possible scenarios for the transmission of the virus.

* The first was a direct zoonotic transmission from an animal host such as a bat to humans.

* The second was transmission through an intermediate host.

* The third was transmission through the (cold) food chain.

* The fourth was transmission through a leakage from a laboratory.

To examine each of these possible pathways of transmission, the scientific WHO team conducted a qualitative risk assessment after considering the available scientific evidence and findings.

It also stated the arguments against and for each possibility. The team assessed the relative likelihood of these pathways and prioritised further studies that would potentially increase knowledge and understanding of how future viruses could be spread.

It then ranked four possible scenarios of transmission in terms of likelihood.

The most likely scenario in the team’s view was transmission through an intermediate host. The second most likely scenario was direct zoonotic transmission which was considered to be a “possible-to-likely” pathway. The third most likely scenario was introduction through cold/ food chain products which was considered a “possible” pathway. The fourth most likely scenario was a laboratory accident which the team considered to be an “extremely unlikely” pathway.

The outbreak was discovered earliest in Wuhan, and China was the first country to impose lockdowns to fight the spread of the virus.

After the US was hit hard by the epidemic in 2020 with more than half a million deaths, which is a higher combat death toll than all the wars fought by the US in the 20th century, former president Donald Trump's administration asserted that the virus came from China and termed the pandemic, the “Chinese flu”.

It also endorsed the theory that the virus was leaked from the Wuhan Institute of Virology.

The new Joseph Biden administration said it would organise American scientists to review the WHO report.

This is in contrast to the stance of the vast majority of WHO members, such as South Africa, that have accepted the report’s finding and endorse its desire to conduct further studies.

The Australian government, for instance, endorsed the WHO report, even though some backbench members argued without a shred of evidence that the WHO’s credibility was “on the line”.

Australian Health Minister Greg Hunt said the Australian government had never promoted the laboratory leakage theory and he was pleased that the WHO investigators had dismissed it.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison had repeatedly declined to publicly back spurious claims made by Donald Trump that the virus may have leaked out of the Wuhan Institute of Virology.

The WHO team found no evidence of widespread circulation of the virus in Wuhan prior to December 2019, and said it was still unclear how it got into the Huanan seafood market, where the virus was initially detected.

* Helmo Preuss is an economist at Forecaster Ecosa.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of IOL.

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