‘Speculative’ Covid-19 lab: WHO says it has no evidence to support theory
Health body says any ‘aggressive investigation of wrongdoing’ regarding virus origins makes understanding it harder
The WHO has said it has no evidence that the virus came from a Chinese lab.
The World Health Organization says the United States government has not given any evidence to support Trump administration officials’ “speculative” claim that COVID-19 originated in a Wuhan lab, as China dismissed the theory as “insane”.
Donald Trump has repeatedly said that he has proof the virus originated in a laboratory in Wuhan – whereas scientists believe it jumped from animals to humans at a wet market in the city last year.
The US secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, said on Sunday that the US had “enormous evidence” to back the theory. But the administration had not produced it publicly or provided it to the WHO, said its emergencies director, Dr Michael Ryan. “So from our perspective, this remains speculative.
“Like any evidence-based organisation, we would be very willing to receive any information that purports to the origin of the virus,” Ryan said, stressing that this was “a very important piece of public health information for future control”.
“If that data and evidence is available, then it will be for the United States government to decide whether and when it can be shared, but it is difficult for the WHO to operate in an information vacuum in that regard.”
Ryan said it was important for the WHO to learn from Chinese scientists’ data and exchange knowledge to “find the answers together”, but cautioned against politicising the issue. “If this is projected as aggressive investigation of wrongdoing, that is much more difficult to deal with. That’s a political issue,” he said.
Chinese state media attacked the US claims, with the state broadcaster CCTV labelling them “insane and evasive” in a Monday opinion piece entitled “Evil Pompeo is wantonly spewing poison and spreading lies”. The state-backed Global Times also published an editorial accusing Pompeo and Trump of “bluffing”, and said if the US had evidence it should present it.
“If Washington has solid evidence, then it should let research institutes and scientists examine and verify it,” the editorial said. The Global Times’ editor, Hu Xijin, tweeted that demands to investigate the Wuhan lab were an attempt to “fool the American people”.
Don’t just say there’s enormous evidence, Pompeo should present them to the world. Republican government is putting on a show. By demanding to investigate Wuhan lab, they are trying to create continuous controversy and focus, to fool the American public.
Intelligence sources have told the Guardian there is no current evidence to suggest coronavirus leaked from a Chinese research laboratory. Reports in Australia suggested its intelligence officials believed a “dossier” touted by the Trump administration to support the laboratory theory was compiled from news reports rather than actual material from the “Five Eyes” spy network of Australia, the US, New Zealand, Canada and the UK.
The US’s senior infectious disease expert, Dr Anthony Fauci, has said the available evidence was “very, very strongly leaning toward this [virus] could not have been artificially or deliberately manipulated”.
The WHO’s technical lead on Covid-19, Dr Maria Van Kerkhove, stressed during Monday’s briefing that there were some 15,000 full genome sequences of the novel coronavirus available, and “from all of the evidence that we have seen … this virus is of natural origin”.
While coronaviruses generally originate in bats, both Van Kerkhove and Ryan stressed the importance of discovering how the virus that causes Covid-19 crossed over to humans, and what animal served as an “intermediary host” along the way.
Several nations, including Australia and the UK, have called for an independent investigation into the outbreak, angering China.
Scott Morrison, the prime minister of key US ally, Australia, said on Tuesday it was “most likely” that the virus originated in a wildlife wet market. Australia is a member of the Five Eyes intelligence network, that includes the US. Morrison reiterated his call for an independent investigation into the virus’s origins and said he had written to G20 leaders asking for support for a “proper review”.
Citing an internal Chinese government report on Tuesday, the Reuters news agency reported international anti-China sentiment was at its highest since the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre.
According to the report, which Reuters said was presented in early March to top Beijing leaders including the president, Xi Jinping, the global hostility could tip US-China relations into confrontation once the pandemic was over.
On Monday the US deputy national security adviser, Matthew Pottinger, sounded a warning to Beijing and asked in a speech – delivered in Mandarin – “whether China today would benefit from a little less nationalism and a little more populism”.
Around the world infection numbers and fatalities have continued to rise. The death toll has passed a quarter of a million globally, and the US’s daily toll is projected to double by June to 3,000 according to the New York Times, which cited “internal document” containing projections “based on modelling by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and pulled together in chart form by the Federal Emergency Management Agency”.
By Tuesday morning the United Kingdom was approaching the death toll of Italy with 28,734 fatalities recorded. So far at least 29,079 people in Italy have died of Covid-19 the second most globally after the US, although it is believed by experts that the true death toll is higher.