U.S. officials push back on joint WHO-China COVID origins study

U.S. officials push back on joint WHO-China COVID origins study
AP Photo/Ng Han Guan, FILE
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United States officials are pushing back on a new joint WHO-China study on the origins of the coronavirus pandemic, which downplays China’s involvement in the pandemic. Some officials suggest that the pandemic was the result of “gain of function” research or weaponization by the Chinese military, likely originating from a lab in Wuhan, China.

The true origin of the virus, which made its way out of Wuhan, China, is currently the subject of a joint investigation by the World Health Organization and Chinese authorities. The joint study claims that the theory suggesting the virus escaped from a Wuhan-based lab is the least likely theory out of four possible theories posited by the study.

The report contends that the most likely source of the virus comes from human contact with an animal that carried the exotic disease, and that the lab leak theory is “extremely unlikely.” The report suggests that a bat infected another animal, which then infected a human.

The report makes an argument for further investigation into every theory except for the lab leak hypothesis. “The report’s release has been repeatedly delayed, raising questions about whether the Chinese side was trying to skew the conclusions to prevent blame for the pandemic falling on China,” reports the Associated Press.

U.S. officials are casting doubt over the credibility of the study, which appears to downplay China’s responsibility in the pandemic, with some suggesting that the lab leak hypothesis is the most likely to be true.

Speaking to CBS’ “60 Minutes,” a former National Security Council official in the Clinton administration and a member of a WHO advisory committee on genetic engineering, Jamie Metzl, described the WHO’s trip to China as “not” an investigation, alleging that the task fell to Chinese authorities to investigate the origins of the coronavirus on their own and produce their own conclusions.

Metzl highlighted potential issues with theories that the pandemic was of natural zoonotic origin, stating that had that been the case, there would have been “some kind of evidence of an outbreak” between bats in southern China, where some species of bat have been found to carry strains of the novel coronavirus similar to COVID-19, and Wuhan, where the virus was first detected. Metzl suggested that the pandemic could have originated from a lab in Wuhan.

Metzl is one of two dozen signatories on a letter to the World Health Organization demanding an international team of experts to investigate the origins of the pandemic because current efforts, which are being conducted by Chinese authorities, “do not constitute a thorough, credible, and transparent investigation.”

Virologist and former CDC director Robert Redfield, who was part of the team managing the pandemic response for the Trump administration, believes that the pandemic originated from a lab in Wuhan, where it escaped.

“I do not believe this somehow came from a bat to a human. And at that moment in time, the virus came to the human, became one of the most infectious viruses that we know in humanity for human to human transmission,” Redfield said in an interview on CNN. “Normally, when a pathogen goes from a zoonotic to human, it takes a while for it to figure out how to become more and more efficient.”

Pushback against the joint WHO-China team’s report is also coming from Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who says that the Biden administration has “real concerns about the methodology and the process that went in that report, including the fact that the government in Beijing apparently helped write it,” he said on CNN.

Blinken’s concerns have been echoed by National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, who said that the administration has “deep concerns about the way in which the early findings of the COVID-19 investigation were communicated and questions about the process used to reach them.

In an interview with Fox News, David Asher, the State Department’s former lead investigator who led the task force into the origins of the virus, said that he believes the coronavirus escaped the Wuhan Institute of Virology, BSL-4 laboratory. He shared his belief that the Chinese military was conducting bioweapons research in the lab.

Fox News reports that Asher is not a partisan actor, having worked for both Republican and Democrat administrations on “some of the most classified intelligence investigations for the State Department and Treasury.”

“Motive, cover-up, conspiracy, all the hallmarks of guilt are associated with this. And the fact that the initial cluster of victims surrounded the very institute that was doing the highly dangerous, if not dubious research is significant,” Asher told the outlet, adding that he believes that the Chinese stopped engaging in biodefense research around 2017 and switched its research to bioweapons development.

Fox News reports:

The Chinese, according to Asher, stopped talking publicly about the research into coronavirus “disease vectors which could be used for weapons” in 2017, at the same time its military began funding the research at the Wuhan Institute of Virology.

“I doubt that that’s a coincidence,” Asher said.

Asher also spoke to The Australian, stating that the pandemic could have potentially started when the Chinese were developing a vaccine for the coronavirus and that it escaped the lab.

He said U.S. intelligence that has now been declassified, along with information from public sources, has credibly confirmed that three workers from the Wuhan Institute of Virology fell sick in early to mid-November 2019, prior to the official start of the pandemic.

Their illness was consistent with both COVID-19 and influenza and, in his personal assessment, was the likely cause of the outbreak.

“There were multiple staff members who did have to go to hospital and appeared to have had conditions of COVID-19,” Asher stated. “You don’t normally go to the hospital with influenza, especially a cluster of people. This is the most probable source of the outbreak.”

Asher confirmed to the publication that the United States government was investigating the possibility of the coronavirus having been developed as a bioweapon.

“There is a high probability the Chinese government was engaged in a weaponization effort at the Wuhan Institute of Virology and other institutes involving coronavirus research,” Asher said. “Whether offence or defence, which is almost impossible to tell, it was 100 per cent undeclared and that is a serious violation of the Biological Weapons Convention and the WHO International Health Regs — to the extent it spilled out and over somehow.”

Unlike laboratories in the United States and Europe, China has a shoddy track record of lab leaks, and has often failed to adhere to safety standards. Leaked U.S. diplomatic cables from 2018 warned of lab safety issues at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, which studies bat coronaviruses.

“There’s evidence certain scientists have found … that there was adeno­virus present in the sequences posted publicly,” Asher said. “Adenovirus means that there was a vaccine present for COVID-19; that could indicate that this was a bio-defence project putting a vaccine together. People don’t normally develop a vaccine for something they are working on. That doesn’t make any sense … to develop a vaccine in advance for something that would never see the light of day makes it sort of ridiculous but is totally consistent with a biological weapons program. They develop an antidote.”

Asher’s views are not out of line with what other U.S. officials are saying. Last month, former deputy national security advisor Matt Pottinger confirmed much of Asher’s stipulations in an interview with CBS News.

“If you weigh the circumstantial evidence, the ledger on the side of an explanation that says that this resulted from some kind of human error, it far outweighs the side of the scale that says this was some natural outbreak,” Pottinger said. “We have very strong reason to believe that the Chinese military was doing secret classified animal experiments in that same laboratory, going all the way back to at least 2017. We have good reason to believe that there was an outbreak of flu-like illness among researchers working in the Wuhan Institute of Virology in the fall of 2019, but right- immediately before the first documented cases came to light.”

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