A World Health Organization team investigating the origins of the coronavirus visited a research institute in China at the center of U.S. assertions—denied by Beijing—that the pandemic could have stemmed from a laboratory accident.
The WHO team spent several hours at the Wuhan Institute of Virology on Wednesday, as part of its long-delayed mission to the city in central China where the first infections were identified more than a year ago.
However, it remained unclear what information the WHO team had sought, or been offered about the controversial research that the institute had been conducting on bat-related coronaviruses in recent years.
The visit comes amid escalating Chinese efforts to promote theories—so far without scientific evidence—that the pandemic didn’t begin in China and might have been introduced to Wuhan via imported frozen food.
Wang Wenbin, a Chinese foreign ministry spokesman, told a regular news briefing that the visit to the institute demonstrated China’s cooperation with the WHO in investigating the origins of the virus.
“The WHO should, based on facts and its responsibilities, conduct similar investigations in other countries and regions,” he said, repeating Beijing’s assertion that the virus had emerged in several parts of the world in the second half of 2019.
Members of the WHO team didn’t respond to requests for comment. A WHO spokesman in Geneva confirmed that the visit had been planned but declined to elaborate.
WHO team members have said in recent days that their main goal wasn’t to investigate the institute itself but to meet fellow scientists who have worked for years on bat coronaviruses for an open-ended conversation about the origins of Covid-19.
Peter Embarek, the WHO team leader, said last week that the institute had been involved in the initial sequencing of SARS-CoV-2, the official name of the new coronavirus. “It’s good to discuss with them and get a better understanding of how much we know about these bat environments,” he said.
“You start from the data you have,” said Marion Koopmans, a Dutch virologist who is also on the WHO team in Wuhan. “If you are looking for a hypothesis, you may actually overlook other things.”
Dr. Embarek and Dr. Koopmans both said that among those the WHO team wanted to meet was Shi Zhengli, a scientist at the institute known as the “Bat Woman” in China after years collecting, sequencing and growing coronaviruses from samples gathered in bat colonies around the country.
Dr. Shi was among Chinese scientists who determined last year that SARS-CoV-2 likely originated in a bat because its genetic sequence was about 96% identical to a coronavirus found in a sample her team collected in southwestern China in 2013.
Dr. Shi is “one of the people that did incredibly important work, so that would certainly be a starting point,” Dr. Koopmans said. But, she added, “It sounds like you are getting into the lab theory, which I’m just not going there.”
Dr. Shi didn’t respond to a request for comment.
“Extremely important meeting today with staff at WIV including Dr. Shi Zhengli,” Peter Daszak, one of the scientists on the delegation, wrote on Twitter Wednesday. “Frank, open discussion. Key questions asked & answered.”
He didn’t respond to a request for comment.
Dr. Shi has previously dismissed the possibility that the virus might have leaked from the laboratory, saying the institute maintained high safety standards and hadn’t discovered any trace of SARS-CoV-2 among its samples or any evidence of infection among its staff.
WHO experts and many scientists around the world say the virus most likely originated in a bat and spread to humans via another animal, possibly one that was sold as meat in the Wuhan market where many people with early cases worked or shopped.
However, some scientists, as well as Western officials, say that the WHO should still seek data, samples and other information from the institute and other laboratories that handled coronaviruses in Wuhan as part of its investigation into the pandemic’s origins.
One question raised by them is whether Dr. Shi genetically engineered coronaviruses in way that made them more infectious or deadly as part of “gain-of-function” experiments considered highly risky by some scientists but seen by others as a way to identify pathogens that could cause future pandemics.
They say the issue became excessively politicized last year as Trump administration officials repeatedly promoted the laboratory leak theory, without presenting evidence. Last month the State Department published new, unverified claims that several researchers at the institute became sick with Covid-19-like symptoms in the fall of 2019, just before the Wuhan outbreak was identified.
The Chinese government has denied the U.S. allegations and responded by suggesting—also without evidence—that the virus might have leaked from a U.S. military laboratory at Fort Detrick in Maryland.
The Biden administration hasn’t repeated the specific allegations about the institute but has called for a robust international investigation into the origins of the pandemic and expressed concern about misinformation from some Chinese sources.
China’s Foreign Ministry called on Washington Tuesday to invite the WHO to visit the U.S. as part of its investigation, after Secretary of State Antony Blinken accused Beijing on Monday of providing insufficient access to international experts.
“China has to step up and make sure that it is being transparent, that it is providing information and sharing information, that it is giving access to international experts and inspectors,” Mr. Blinken said in an interview with MSNBC on Monday. “Its failure to do that is a real problem that we have to address.”
The international scientific community, meanwhile, appears divided, with some saying they see no evidence that the virus escaped from a laboratory, and others calling for greater transparency about the institute’s work.
Among the most vocal in the latter camp is Richard Ebright, a molecular biologist at Rutgers University in New Jersey who is not part of the WHO team.
“The possibility that SARS-CoV-2 entered human populations through a laboratory accident cannot, and should not, be dismissed,” he said in an email.
He said a credible investigation would require unrestricted access to records, samples, personnel and facilities at the institute and two other institutions in Wuhan. “These activities cannot be performed in a half-day or one-day pro forma visit to a laboratory.”
Wim van der Poel, a virologist at Wageningen University & Research in the Netherlands, which has worked with the Wuhan institute, also called for greater transparency about its work.
“I would hope they also discuss what kind of research they’re doing,” he said. “I’ve been in China quite frequently, and what I know from the Chinese laboratory is that they only show what they would like to show, and they only discuss with you what they like to discuss. And there is obviously a lot going on that they are not willing to explain to you.”
Since emerging from two weeks’ quarantine in a hotel, the WHO team has visited Wuhan’s Huanan market, around which many of the first infections were identified, as well as hospitals that treated them, and the nearby Wuhan Center for Disease Control and Prevention.
It has also visited a museum celebrating China’s success in controlling the virus in Wuhan and a frozen food storage facility at a local wholesale market.
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