China on Wednesday urged the World Health Organization to investigate whether COVID-19 first originated in a U.S. military laboratory after the agency’s director called for a deeper probe into whether the virus had escaped from a Chinese lab.
A WHO-led team that visited China earlier this year to investigate the coronavirus pandemic’s origins said in a report on Tuesday that it was “extremely unlikely” that the virus had leaked from a Chinese laboratory and recommended no further exploration of that theory.
However, just before the report’s release, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said the team’s probe into the potential lab leak was not sufficient and that further investigation was needed. He said he was prepared to send more specialists to explore that possibility, according to the Wall Street Journal.
On Wednesday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying responded to a question about Tedros’ comments by touting the team’s “important conclusion” that the lab leak theory was unlikely.
“They have basically excluded the possibility of a lab incident” in Wuhan, she said.
She also called on the agency to investigate early outbreaks in other countries and encouraged the WHO to investigate a U.S. military laboratory at Fort Detrick, Md.
“As you know relevant study is already done in Wuhan labs, but when will Fort Detrick be open to those experts?” she asked. “If necessary, we hope the U.S. can be as open and candid as China.”
For months Chinese officials have peddled the unfounded theory that the virus may have originated at Fort Detrick, which houses parts of the U.S. biological defense program and other medical research efforts led by the military, without offering any evidence.
Hua would not say whether China would allow scientists to continue to investigate the labs in Wuhan or when it would start the second phase of studies outlined in the WHO-led team’s report.
The WHO-led team was forced to rely on the word of the Chinese scientists participating in the investigation and were not given uninhibited access to the Wuhan Institute of Virology, where many public health experts believe the virus may have originated.
The WHO report also contradicted U.S. intelligence claims about the safety protocols at the WIV. The report claims the lab was “well run” but State Department cables from 2018 reveal that diplomats who visited the facility had concerns that proper safety measures were not being observed. The report also suggests that no researchers at the lab came down with COVID but the State department announced in January that researchers reported flu-like symptoms in the fall, months before Chinese authorities acknowledged the COVID outbreak.
WIV staff also deleted a genome database that contained information about which viruses were being studied at the lab.
Dr. Robert Redfield, the former director of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said last week that he believes the coronavirus originated inside a lab in Wuhan and “escaped,” and was potentially spreading as early as September 2019.
“If I was to guess, this virus started transmitting somewhere in September, October in Wuhan,” the virologist told CNN in a clip that aired Friday. “That’s my own feelings. And only opinion. I’m allowed to have opinions now.”
Redfield said he is “of the point of view that I still think the most likely aetiology of this pathogen in Wuhan was from a laboratory, escaped.”
“The other people don’t believe that,” said Redfield, who led the CDC under former President Donald Trump. “That’s fine. Science will eventually figure it out. It’s not unusual for respiratory pathogens that are being worked on in a laboratory to infect the laboratory worker.”
The WHO-led team’s report also notes that it is possible the pandemic began outside Wuhan, or China, as the team found little evidence of substantial spread in Wuhan before December 2019, while the virus had been found in individuals in Italy and Brazil in late November. However, scientists have said it is possible the virus was spreading undetected in Wuhan and the surrounding areas for weeks or months before gaining attention.
“The current thinking is that we are still working with the start in and around Wuhan and working backwards on how it came here,” said Peter Ben Embarek, the head of the WHO team. “It is perfectly possible you would have sporadic cases in and around Wuhan before December, November, even October 2019…That earlier move of the virus outside of the area could potentially be explained that way.”