Canada, the United States and 12 other countries expressed concerns Tuesday that the released World Health Organization (WHO) report on the origins of the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19 was delayed and lacked access to complete data, according to a joint statement.
The statement was also signed by the governments of Australia, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Israel, Japan, Latvia, Lithuania, Norway, the Republic of Korea, Slovenia and the United Kingdom.
“Together, we support a transparent and independent analysis and evaluation, free from interference and undue influence, of the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic,” the statement read. “In this regard, we join in expressing shared concerns regarding the recent WHO-convened study in China, while at the same time reinforcing the importance of working together toward the development and use of a swift, effective, transparent, science-based, and independent process for international evaluations of such outbreaks of unknown origin in the future.”
The statement praises the mission of WHO and called for “further studies of animals to find the means of introduction into humans, and urge momentum for expert-driven phase 2 studies.”
The WHO-led team that spent four weeks in and around Wuhan, China, in January and February released its final report to the public.
WHO report called ‘important beginning’
WHO director general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said in a statement the report was “a very important beginning.”
“Finding the origin of a virus takes time and we owe it to the world to find the source so we can collectively take steps to reduce the risk of this happening again,” Tedros said in his statement. “No single research trip can provide all the answers.”
The joint WHO-China study on the origins of COVID-19 says the virus was probably transmitted from bats to humans through another animal, a finding that became widely known Monday after a draft of the report was obtained by news organizations. The theory was among four that was discussed in detail in the report.
The conclusion that knowledge around virus origins remains incomplete likely means that tensions over how the pandemic started — and whether China has helped or hinder efforts to find out, as the United States has alleged — will continue.
While not mentioning China specifically, Tedros told member states he expected “future collaborative studies to include more timely and comprehensive data sharing.”
The leader of the four-week WHO mission to China, Peter Ben Embarek, said on Tuesday he was not pressed to remove anything from its final report, though he did admit there was some difficulty in accessing raw data
It is “perfectly possible” COVID-19 cases were circulating in November or October 2019 around Wuhan, Embarek said, potentially leading to the disease spreading abroad earlier than has been documented.
Lab leak considered least likely possibility
The report acknowledges that there is literature suggesting SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes the coronavirus disease, may have been circulating earlier as indicated by sewage testing in Spain and Italy. But officials at Tuesday’s news conference said the methodology of those studies need more scrutiny.
Dominic Dwyer, a WHO mission expert, said there was “no obvious evidence” that any Wuhan-area labs were involved in the outbreak.
Some members of former U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration have promoted a lab leak theory, though they have not provided specific evidence to support their supposition.
READ | WHO report on origins of SARS-CoV-2:
Three laboratories in Wuhan working with coronaviruses had “well-managed,” high-quality biosafety levels, and there had been no reports of compatible respiratory illness among staff during the preceding months, the report said.
Nor had they tested positive for the SARS-CoV-2 virus in subsequent blood screening for antibodies, the report said.
The report also discusses evidence — supporting or conflicting — for two other possibilities.
Direct spread from bats to humans was considered as possible, while potential spread through “cold-chain” food products was considered possible but not likely.
White House urges more action from WHO
The White House on Tuesday urged WHO to take additional steps to determine the origins of COVID-19 in its own comment.
“There’s a second stage in this process that we believe should be led by international and independent experts. They should have unfettered access to data. They should be able to ask questions of people who are on the ground at this point in time, and that’s a step the WHO could take,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters.
WATCH \ WHO last month says it believes lab leak theory unlikely:
Earlier Tuesday, more than 20 heads of government and global agencies in a commentary published Tuesday called for an international treaty for pandemic preparedness that they say will protect future generations in the wake of COVID-19.
But there were few details to explain how such an agreement might actually compel countries to act more co-operatively.