The next phase of the World Health Organization (WHO) investigation into the origins of the coronavirus pandemic must be more scientific and data-driven, a group of scientists wrote in an open letter to the WHO on Friday.
China should not be permitted to veto the team members chosen for the next WHO-led investigation and the team should be granted full access to related data such as medical records and biological samples, signers of the letter wrote.
The letter is authored by various international scientists and academics and co-organized by Jamie Metzl, a WHO advisor and senior fellow at the Atlantic Council think tank.
A WHO-led team released a report in March on the origins of the pandemic, but the team was denied access to important data. The WHO’s director-general, the White House, the U.S. State Department and 13 other countries expressed concern that the WHO team’s report was compromised.
The WHO team that traveled to Wuhan in January to investigate COVID-19’s origins was tasked by World Health Assembly resolution 73.1 with identifying only “the zoonotic source of the virus,” or its transfer from animals to humans. Instead, it should be given the objective of investigating all possible origins of the pandemic, including from a lab leak, according to the letter.
The WHO team also was not given the mission of performing an investigation, but rather to “recommend, help design, and review scientific studies,” the letter says. “This meant that performing an investigation, let alone a forensic audit of laboratories, was beyond the remit of the joint mission,” according to the letter.
Going ahead, the WHO team must be given a different objective: “to conduct a full scientific and forensic investigation into all possible origins of COVID-19, be it zoonotic or not,” according to the letter.
Additionally, the team should be permitted to do its work with “no unnecessary presence of host government non-scientific personnel,” the letter says.
NIH Director Francis Collins said Wednesday at a hearing of the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Health that an “investigation following on the original WHO investigation is needed.”
Officials at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the Department of State, and six other federal agencies are also planning to make recommendations to the WHO regarding its second inquiry into COVID-19’s origins, the Wall Street Journal reported Tuesday.
“The U.S. is expected to recommend a review of medical records of [Wuhan] laboratory staff, and that international scientists be granted access to pre-2020 strains of the virus from laboratories or patients,” a U.S. official told the Journal. The U.S. will also recommend more testing of animals and humans for early evidence of the new coronavirus, the Journal reported.
The next phase of a WHO investigation of the pandemic’s origins should be mandated to have access to key databases of pathogens and samples, the scientists’ open letter states.
“These databases are essential as they contain data about viruses not yet published, and some of these viruses may be closely related to SARS-CoV-2,” the letter says.
The WHO team should be guaranteed “access to required raw data (relevant records, samples, project applications, project reports, personnel information, field trip information, relevant emails, laboratory notebooks, etc.) and not solely semi-aggregated data or summaries,” the letter says.
Among many other recommendations, the letter says that “the Terms of Reference for the initial joint study gave Chinese authorities an effective veto over participation in the international team, thereby compromising its independence.”
Instead, the selection process of the members of the team should be made transparent and China should not have veto power, the scientists recommend.
The team should include appropriate experts in related fields and should not include “experts with conflicts of interest,” according to the scientists. The only U.S. member of the first WHO team, Peter Daszak, works for EcoHealth Alliance, which had received a U.S. grant to do research at the Wuhan lab considered a possible source of the pandemic.
By Eleanor Bartow
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