In January, an international team of infectious disease experts was tasked by the World Health Organization with traveling to Wuhan, China, in search of the origins of the SARS-CoV-2 virus. The Wall Street Journal reported on Thursday (March 4) that WHO has scrapped plans to release an interim report of its findings ahead of the full, official record, despite announcing in mid-February that one would be coming. WHO did not provide a statement regarding why the interim report was dropped.
During the month-long investigation—the first two weeks of which was spent in quarantine—the team members remarked on difficulties regarding transparency. They were denied access to raw data, could only visit approved locations, and were barred from speaking to people in the community, Reuters reports. However, Peter Daszak, a member of the investigation team, tweeted in mid-February that an earlier report of lack of access was untrue. According to the Journal, officials in Beijing have encouraged the team to look outside Wuhan for the origin, as they suspect it arrived in the city in the form of contaminated, imported frozen foods.
In a March 4 statement, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus announced that the full report and a summary will be released the week of March 15, with member states having access before the release.
At the end of the investigation period in February, Peter Ben Embarek, an expert in zoonotic diseases who co-led the team, cast doubt that the virus was created in or leaked from a lab. The prevailing hypothesis is that the virus came from bats, perhaps through an intermediary host.
Given the level of interference by the Chinese government during the investigation, some experts say a lab-related incident cannot be definitively ruled out. An open letter with around two dozen signatories from several countries was published by the Journal on March 4 addressing the concerns.
“[T]he joint team did not have the mandate, the independence, or the necessary accesses to carry out a full and unrestricted investigation into all the relevant SARS-CoV-2 origin hypotheses,” the letter reads, “whether natural spillover or laboratory/research-related incident.”
The letter identifies nine limitations of WHO’s investigation and provides a 13-point outline of what the signatories say the standards should have been, including fully exploring all possible scenarios, having full or significant access to locations and data, and conducting confidential interviews with some of the earliest-known COVID-19 patients.