WHO chief says push to discount Covid lab leak theory ‘premature’; China reacts

Undermining the World Health Organization’s own March report on the origin of coronavirus disease (Covid-19), the head of the UN health agency on Thursday said that the push to discount the lab leak theory was “premature.” Speaking to reporters in Geneva, WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus acknowledged the possibility of coronavirus leaking in a laboratory accident.

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

Researchers have been trying to identify the origin of Sars-Cov-2 since its first outbreak in the Chinese city of Wuhan. But they have not been able to arrive at a definitive conclusion, given the challenge faced by investigators to access raw data, according to the WHO chief, during their probe earlier this year in China.

The lab leak theory has been floating around from the initial days of the pandemic but was largely dismissed as a conspiracy theory. The hypothesis gained momentum after top US infectious disease expert Dr Anthony Fauci said he was not totally convinced with the theory that the virus “developed naturally.” Fauci’s remark was followed by US President Joe Biden ordering intelligence officials to “redouble” their efforts to probe the possibility of a Chinese laboratory link.

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Amid growing international pressure for another investigation, Ghebreyesus has asked China to be more transparent as scientists search for the origins of the coronavirus. He told reporters that the UN health agency is “asking actually China to be transparent, open and cooperate, especially on the information, raw data that we asked for at the early days of the pandemic.”

“We need information, direct information on what the situation of this lab was before and at the start of the pandemic,” he said, adding that China’s cooperation was critical. “If we get full information, we can exclude (the lab connection).”

Responding to the WHO’s changed stance on Covid origins, China has denied that international experts were not given adequate access for investigation. Citing the report published in March, China’s foreign ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said that the investigators “agreed that the hypothesis that a lab leak led to the outbreak is extremely unlikely.”