U.S., other countries express ‘concerns’ about WHO report on COVID origins

On Tuesday, the United States and 13 other countries released a statement expressing “concerns” with a report from a World Health Organization (WHO)-led team into the origins of coronavirus, saying it lacked complete access to the information it needed.

“We voice our shared concerns that the international expert study on the source of the SARS-CoV-2 virus was significantly delayed and lacked access to complete, original data and samples,” the nations said in a joint statement.

There have been concerns for a long time about the independence of the WHO-led team of experts, working jointly with Chinese scientists, and whether the Chinese government was providing full access to needed information on the origins of the virus.

A leaked draft of the WHO report, first reported Monday by the Associated Press, says it’s “extremely unlikely” that the coronavirus escaped from a lab. While not reaching a definitive conclusion, the report instead says the virus was likely transmitted from animals to humans.

Asked on Tuesday at a White House press briefing if China had cooperated enough with the report—according to The Hill—press secretary Jen Psaki said: “They have not been transparent, they have not provided underlying data, that certainly doesn’t qualify as cooperation.”

“We don’t believe that in our review to date that it meets the moment,” Psaki added about the report.

The joint statement was the first reaction after the official release of the report earlier Tuesday, The Hill noted. Joining the U.S. in the statement were Australia, Canada, Czechia, Denmark, Estonia, Israel, Japan, Latvia, Lithuania, Norway, South Korea, Slovenia, and the United Kingdom.

“Scientific missions like these should be able to do their work under conditions that produce independent and objective recommendations and findings,” the 14 countries stated.

“Going forward, there must now be a renewed commitment by WHO and all Member States to access, transparency, and timeliness,” the statement from the 14 countries added.

On Tuesday in reaction to the report, the WHO said that research is continuing and that it is not ruling out any hypotheses at the moment, according The Hill.

Shortly before the report’s release, The Wall Street Journal noted, WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus called for a more extensive probe into whether COVID-19 had escaped from a lab, the strongest terms he has used in public yet on the matter. He said he was ready to deploy additional experts to look into that theory.

Last week, former Centers for Disease Control and Prevention director Robert Redfield said he believes the outbreak began at the Wuhan Institute of Virology lab.

“I still think the most likely etiology of this pathogen in Wuhan was from a laboratory—you know, escaped. Other people don’t believe that. That’s fine,” Redfield said in a CNN interview. “Science will eventually figure it out. It’s not unusual for respiratory pathogens that are being worked on in a laboratory to infect a laboratory worker.”

On Sunday, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken criticized China in comments to CNN’s Dana Bash.

“We’ve got real concerns about the methodology and the process that went into that report, including the fact that the government in Beijing apparently helped to write it,” Blinken said.

China has denied any cover up regarding the WHO report.

In the U.S., the WHO has also garnered bipartisan backlash for the aforementioned reasons.

GOP Rep. Lee Zeldin (N.Y.), a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, tweeted Sunday that the investigation did not suffice.

“Since the initial outbreak of COVID-19, the Chinese Communist Party has lied & covered-up to the world the pandemic’s origins,” Zeldin tweeted.

“The World Health Organization has played along time & again as the CCP’s useful idiots. A thorough & truly independent investigation is long overdue.”

Atlantic Council senior fellow Jamie Metzl, who worked at the White House National Security Council under President Bill Clinton, told CBS’s “60 Minutes” that it’s comparable to letting the Soviet Union investigate the Chernobyl nuclear accident, which was covered up by local authorities.

“It was agreed first that China would have veto power over who even got to be on the mission,” said Metzl, a former staffer to President Joe Biden when he headed the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee

“WHO agreed to that,” he continued. “On top of that, the WHO agreed that in most instances, China would do the primary investigation and then just share its findings with these international experts. So these international experts weren’t allowed to do their own primary investigation.”

Journalist Lesley Stahl then asked, “You’re saying that China did the investigation and showed the results to the committee and that was it?”

“Pretty much that was it—not entirely, but pretty much that was it. Imagine if we had asked the Soviet Union to do a co-investigation of Chernobyl, it doesn’t really make sense,” Metzl said.

You can follow Douglas Braff on Twitter @DouglasPBraff.

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