WHO scientist revisits COVID lab leak theory and demands more data from China

Head of the World Health Organisation (WHO) mission probing the Covid-19 pandemic origins says virus may have started with a Wuhan lab staffer becoming infected.

China is furious to any suggestions that the Covid-19 virus, which has killed at least 4 million people globally since being detected in the city of Wuhan in December 2019, was a result of malpractice at a Wuhan laboratory. However, according to Peter Ben Embarek, head of the World Health Organization mission investigating the origins of the pandemic, this is a probablity of what might have happened.

“An employee of the lab gets infected while working in a bat cave collecting samples. Such a scenario, while being a lab leak, would also fit our first hypothesis of direct transmission of the virus from bat to human. This is a hypothesis that we consider to be likely,” Peter Ben Embarek told the Danish public channel TV2.

Embarek also said it had been difficult for his team to discuss this theory with Chinese scientists.

In order to address the ‘lab hypothesis’, it is important to have access to all data and consider scientific best practice and look at the mechanisms WHO already has in place.

Analysing and improving lab safety and protocols "including in China, is important for our collective biosafety and security.

A previous WHO study, conducted at the start of the year, had concluded on March 29 that the hypothesis of a laboratory incident remains extremely unlikely. The study had pointed out that the virus jumping from bats to humans via an intermediate animal was the most probable scenario, while a leak from the Wuhan virology labs was "extremely unlikely".

But Embarek pointed out that none of the types of bats suspected to have been the reservoir for the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19 lives in the wild in the Wuhan region.

The only people likely to have approached these types of bats are employees of the city laboratories, he said.

In a recent development, WHO on Thursday urged China to release raw data from the earliest COVID-19 cases in order to assist the pandemic origins probe. However, WHO also urged all countries to depoliticise the search for the origins of the pandemic.

In its statement, the WHO remarked that the search for the pandemic’s origins “should not be an exercise in attributing blame, finger-pointing or political point-scoring”.

The lab leak theory was gained momentum under former US President Donald Trump, with him labeling it "the Chinese virus". It also seems his successor Joe Biden is keen too to see this line of inquiry investigated.

Jamie Metzl, a board member on WHO advisory board on human genome editing, also welcomed Embarek’s comments as "a game-changer", describing his earlier declaration that a lab leak was unlikely “shameful”.

The lab leak theory has been gaining momentum again in recent weeks with WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus also agreeing that it is “ premature ” to rule out a possible lab leak as the source of COVID-19.

“I was a lab technician myself. I’m an immunologist and I have worked in the lab and lab accidents happen,” Tedros said. "It’s common".


Sydney Chako

Mathematics, Chemistry and Physics teacher at Sytech Learning Academy. From Junior Secondary School to Tertiary Level Engineering Mathematics and Engineering Science.

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