Top medics play down ‘speculative’ US allegations
The World Health Organization, or WHO, said on Monday that allegations by the United States government that it had seen strong evidence that the novel coronavirus originated in a lab in Wuhan were “speculative”.
In recent days both President Donald Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have claimed to have seen strong evidence that the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19 came from the Wuhan Institute of Virology, but have failed to provide any specific evidence.
Mike Ryan, executive director of the WHO Health Emergencies Programme, said that the organization has not received any data or specific evidence from the US government relating to the purported origin of the virus.
“From our perspective, this remains speculative,” he told a virtual news conference from Geneva. “Like any evidence-based organization, we will be very willing to receive any information that purports to the origin of the virus.”
He said that if that data and evidence are available, then it will be for the US government to decide whether and when it can be shared. He added that in that specific regard, it is difficult for the WHO to operate in an information vacuum.
Ryan emphasized that on the basis of all the evidence and advice the WHO has received, the virus is of natural origin.
Maria Van Kerkhove, technical lead of the WHO program, echoed this view, saying that some 15,000 available genome sequences all support that belief.
“What we really need to understand is the intermediate host, the animal that was infected by a bat and that infected people in some of the early cases,” said Van Kerkhove, a US scientist who spent two weeks working in China during the outbreak.
That was also the advice from the International Health Regulations Emergency Committee on COVID-19 which met twice in late January, and again last week.
Both Van Kerkhove and Ryan said that understanding that the intermediate host and animal-human interface is important to help prevent such a pandemic from happening again in the future.
Ryan said that the investigation will be similar to the WHO mission to China in February when Chinese and international scientists conducted studies together in several Chinese cities.
“We need to understand that we can learn from Chinese scientists, we can learn from each other, we can exchange knowledge, and we can find the answers together,” he said.
Trump and Pompeo have been blaming both China and the WHO for the spread of COVID-19, a move seen by many as a reflection of the widespread criticism of US government mismanagement of the pandemic crisis at home. The US saw its worst death toll of 2,909 on Friday, putting enormous pressure on Trump ahead of the November presidential election.
Ryan said that if it is projected as an aggressive investigation of wrongdoing, that is more difficult to do. “That’s a political issue. That is not a science issue,” he said.
He expressed that Chinese scientists have been communicating and collaborating around the world throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We would like to see that spirit continue. We would like to see scientists at the center of the exploration of the source of this,” he said.
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