BEIJING—China on Wednesday called for the World Health Organization to probe whether Covid-19 first emerged in other countries—possibly including from a U.S. military laboratory—in its first public response to a call from the head of the agency for a more robust investigation into whether the virus escaped from a Chinese lab.
A WHO-led team that visited China earlier this year to explore the pandemic’s origins concluded in a report published Tuesday that the coronavirus was “extremely unlikely” to have leaked from a Chinese laboratory and recommended no further study of that possibility.
However, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said shortly before the report’s release that the team’s assessment of a potential lab leak had not been extensive enough and that further investigation was needed, adding he was ready to deploy addition specialists to study that possibility.
Asked about Dr. Tedros’s comments at a daily news briefing on Wednesday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying repeatedly referred to the team’s “important conclusion” that a lab leak in Wuhan was extremely unlikely.
“They have basically excluded the possibility of a lab incident” in Wuhan, she said.
More than a year after the coronavirus pandemic began, the World Health Organization released a report on Tuesday laying out theories on how the virus first spread to humans — but it is already raising more questions than answers, including from the health body’s own leader.
The report, drafted by a 34-member team of Chinese scientists and international experts who led a mission to Wuhan, China, examines a series of politically contentious questions, including whether the virus might have accidentally emerged from a Chinese laboratory.
Some members of the expert team have raised concerns about China’s refusal to share raw data about early Covid-19 cases. In an unusual move, Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the W.H.O.’s director-general, acknowledged those concerns while speaking about the report on Tuesday. He said he hoped future studies would include “more timely and comprehensive data sharing.”
prepared remarks released to the news media. “Further data and studies will be needed to reach more robust conclusions.”
The experts had said that officials at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, which houses a state-of-the-art laboratory known for its research on bat coronaviruses, assured them that they were not handling any viruses that appeared to be closely related to the coronavirus that caused the recent pandemic, according to meeting notes included in the report. They also said that staff members had been trained in security protocols.
Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market in Wuhan, where many early cases of Covid-19 emerged. The expert team said that there appeared to be no connection, writing that the lab had not reported any “disruptions or incidents caused by the move” and had not been doing research on coronaviruses.
Some critics have suggested that the team seemed to take the Chinese official position at face value and did not adequately investigate lab officials’ assertions.
Raina MacIntyre, who heads the biosecurity program at the Kirby Institute of the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia, said the report seemed to dismiss the idea of a lab leak “without strong evidence.”
“A lab accident is certainly a possibility,” she said.
The role of animal markets is still unclear.
The expert team concluded that the coronavirus probably emerged in bats before spreading to humans through an intermediate animal. But the team said there was not enough evidence to identify the species or to pinpoint where the spillover of the virus from animals first occurred.
Early in the pandemic, Chinese officials floated theories suggesting that the coronavirus outbreak might have started at the Huanan market. More than a year later, the role of animal markets in the story of the pandemic is still unclear, according to the report.
The expert team found that many early cases had no clear connection to Huanan market, which sold sika deer, badgers, bamboo rats, live crocodiles and other animals, according to vendor records cited in the report.
Among those initial confirmed cases, about 28 percent had links to the Huanan market and 23 percent were tied to other markets in Wuhan, while 45 percent had no history of market exposure, according to the report.
“No firm conclusion therefore about the role of the Huanan market in the origin of the outbreak, or how the infection was introduced into the market, can currently be drawn,” the report says.
It says that further studies of farms and wild animals in China are needed, and that more clues about the markets’ role may emerge.
The inquiry’s success will depend on China.
The expert team offers a long list of recommendations for additional research: more testing of wildlife and livestock in China and Southeast Asia, more studies on the earliest cases of Covid-19 and more tracing of pathways from farms to markets in Wuhan.
But it is unclear whether China, which has repeatedly hindered the W.H.O. inquiry, will cooperate. Chinese officials have sought to redirect attention elsewhere, suggesting that the virus could have emerged in the United States or other countries.
Experts say the delays in the inquiry have hurt the ability to prevent other pandemics.
“This delay has obviously compromised the ability of the investigation to reconstruct the origins of Covid-19 and identify ways of reducing the risk of such events happening again in the future,” said Michael Baker, a professor of public health at the University of Otago in New Zealand.
Government leaders from more than 24 countries have joined the head of the World Health Organization in calling for a new international treaty on pandemic preparedness and response, aimed at improving alert systems, data sharing and transparency, as well as widening access to vaccines.
The leaders made the appeal in a joint statement published Tuesday, just hours before a WHO-led team investigating the origins of Covid-19 is due to publish its full report on a long-delayed mission to China that has been mired in political controversy.
“There will be other pandemics and other major health emergencies. No single government or multilateral agency can address this threat alone. The question is not if, but when,” the statement said, describing Covid-19 as the biggest challenge to the international community since the 1940s.
“We are convinced that it is our responsibility, as leaders of nations and international institutions, to ensure that the world learns the lessons of the Covid-19 pandemic,” it said.
The statement was signed by WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus and the leaders of countries including Britain, France, Germany, Spain, South Africa, South Korea and Indonesia but not the U.S. or China, which have been at loggerheads over the investigation into the origins of Covid-19. Though neither signed, both expressed encouraging opinions towards the proposal, Dr. Tedros said Tuesday.
BRUSSELS — Citing what they call “the biggest challenge to the global community since the 1940s,” the leaders of 25 countries, the European Union and the World Health Organization on Tuesday floated an international treaty to protect the world from pandemics.
In a joint article published in numerous newspapers across the globe, the leaders warn that the current coronavirus pandemic will inevitably be followed by others at some point. They outline a treaty meant to provide universal and equitable access to vaccines, medicines and diagnostics, a suggestion first made in November by Charles Michel, the president of the European Council, the body that represents the leaders of the European Union countries.
The article argues that an international understanding similar to the one that followed World War II and that led to the United Nations is needed to build cross-border cooperation before the next global health crisis upends economies and lives. The current pandemic is “a stark and painful reminder that nobody is safe until everyone is safe,” the leaders write.
The suggested treaty is an acknowledgment that the current system of international health institutions, symbolized by the relatively powerless World Health Organization, an agency of the United Nations, is inadequate to the problem.
distribution of vaccines, medicines, diagnostics and personal protective equipment, they said.
“At a time when Covid-19 has exploited our weaknesses and divisions, we must seize this opportunity and come together as a global community for peaceful cooperation that extends beyond this crisis,” the leaders write. “Building our capacities and systems to do this will take time and require a sustained political, financial and societal commitment over many years.”
The article is not clear, however, about what would happen should a country choose not to cooperate fully or to delay sharing scientific information, as China has been accused of doing with the W.H.O.
China has not signed the letter, at least so far. Neither has the United States.
In a news conference on Tuesday in Geneva, the director general of the World Health Organization, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, said that when discussions on a treaty start, “all member states will be represented.”
Asked if the leaders of China, the United States and Russia had been asked to sign the letter, he said that some leaders had chosen to “opt in.”
“Comment from member states, including the United States and China, was actually positive,” he said. “Next steps will be to involve all countries, and this is normal,” he added. “I don’t want it to be seen as a problem.”
As well as European countries and the W.H.O., the letter’s signatories included nations in Africa, Asia and Latin America.
“They’re our family. They’re our friends. They’re our neighbors. They’re our partners,” Scott Morrison, Australia’s prime minister, said last week. “This is in Australia’s interests, and it is in our region’s interests,” he added.
Covax, a global health initiative designed to make access to inoculations more equal, began rolling out doses of vaccines to developing nations last month, and it has said it will deliver 588,000 to Papua New Guinea by June.
But in some cases, wealthier nations have failed to honor contracts, reducing the number of doses the initiative can buy, Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the director of the World Health Organization, said in a statement last month. He warned that the pandemic would not end until everyone was vaccinated.
“This is not a matter of charity,” he said. “It’s a matter of epidemiology.”
Until then, officials in Papua New Guinea will be left to combat not only the virus itself but also a tide of misinformation about the pathogen and the vaccines, carried largely through social media channels.
“Even for the educated health worker, it’s causing a lot of doubt,” said Dr. Nou, the Port Moresby-based physician, who has conducted a survey of health care workers’ views about the pandemic.
Some public health experts said they worried that the redirection of resources to fight the coronavirus could come at a lethal cost to those with other severe health conditions, such malaria or tuberculosis. Papua New Guinea has some of the highest rates of tuberculosis in the world.
“It’s not good enough to just respond to Covid and then have someone die of another cause,” said Dr. Suman Majumdar, an infectious diseases specialist at the Burnet Institute, an Australian medical research facility. “We have feared the worst,” he added, “and this is happening.”
WUHAN, China—More than a dozen foreign scientists led by the World Health Organization gathered with Chinese counterparts last month to vote on the question: How did the Covid-19 pandemic start?
The show of hands came after a four-week joint study in the city where the first cases were identified, a mission many hoped would provide some clarity to a world craving answers.
For a while, it appeared to. The vote’s results captured headlines: The virus probably jumped to humans from an animal; further research was needed on whether it spread on frozen food; a lab leak was “extremely unlikely.”
A month on, however, as the WHO-led team finalizes its full report on the Wuhan mission, a Wall Street Journal investigation has uncovered fresh details about the team’s formation and constraints that reveal how little power it had to conduct a thorough, impartial examination—and call into question the clarity its findings appeared to provide.
China resisted international pressure for an investigation it saw as an attempt to assign blame, delayed the probe for months, secured veto rights over participants and insisted its scope encompass other countries as well, the Journal found.
Meanwhile, the Trump administration’s early assertions that the virus may have come from a Chinese laboratory soured diplomatic efforts to press China to allow a more rigorous probe. Many scientists view a lab accident as an unlikely cause of the pandemic, arguing the chances are greater that it jumped to humans and began spreading in nature. And the administration began withdrawing from the WHO, making it harder to rally allies. A Trump spokeswoman declined to comment.
The WHO asked the U.S. to recommend government experts for the team, but it didn’t contact the three that Washington put forward, according to current and former U.S. officials. Another U.S. scientist was selected for the team. Beijing hasn’t publicly identified most Chinese participants or shared critical raw data on the first confirmed cases and possible earlier ones.
U.S. officials said they asked, unsuccessfully, for the WHO to consult its governing body on negotiations with China over details of the probe, and said Washington lacked clarity on how the international team was recruited. The team members said they lacked the mandate, expertise and access to investigate a potential lab leak. And the team reached its verdict on . 8 in a show of hands with Chinese counterparts, many of whom report to a government that had already ruled out a lab accident and which has suggested the pandemic began outside China.
WHO spokesman Tarik Jasarevic said China didn’t weigh in on the agency’s selection of team members or object to any who had been chosen. The mission was mandated to design and recommend scientific studies, not to do an investigation, let alone a forensic audit of laboratories, WHO officials said. The WHO normally negotiates the terms of such missions with a host government directly, without other member states, Mr. Jasarevic said.
The upshot: What should have been a timely collaborative scientific inquiry has become slower, harder and more opaque. The world now risks never finding an answer to the virus’s origins.
Finding that answer is critical. Knowing how a new virus emerged helps scientists and policy makers devise ways to prevent a recurrence or another pandemic, and it can unlock clues about viral evolution that help in developing drugs and vaccines. It would also help satisfy human desire to know what unleashed a virus that has now killed more than 2.6 million people.
The team’s report, which will describe its findings and make recommendations for further study, is expected to be published next week, after Chinese counterparts review it and make possible changes, according to team members and the WHO.
China’s foreign ministry didn’t respond to requests for comment other than to say none of its officials were in the expert group. The national health commission didn’t respond to requests for comment and declined to make Liang Wannian, the head of the Chinese team in Wuhan, available for an interview. In recent weeks, the Chinese government has said it is cooperating with the WHO and that the Wuhan mission was part of a collaborative study, not an investigation, stressing that its report has to be approved by Chinese participants.
Chinese officials and scientists have argued the virus may have entered China via frozen food. Many independent researchers consider that hypothesis unlikely. Beijing has asked the WHO to conduct similar missions in other countries. The WHO hasn’t announced plans for missions to other countries.
Among scientists, there is little dispute that the international team performed valuable research. Many of the Chinese scientists involved worked hard to prepare data and analysis, members of the WHO-led team said. “They’ve done quite a lot of work,” said Peter Ben Embarek, who led the team. “I’m impressed with the amount of studies they’ve done.”
The mission returned with a much clearer sense of how widely the virus was already spreading in December 2019—clues that could help pinpoint when the pandemic began. Some scientists are confident that future studies will reveal the source.
Even so, the probe is stoking U.S.-China tensions. The Biden administration has questioned how the team reached its conclusions, urging Beijing to release all relevant data and saying any report should be independent of Chinese government intervention. Chinese officials have called for a probe on U.S. soil, suggesting the virus was spreading there in late 2019.
The WHO doesn’t have the regulatory teeth to force governments to disclose information. It can’t send disease experts to investigate an outbreak unless a government invites it.
Those challenges are particularly acute when dealing with a Chinese government that is increasingly influential within the United Nations system yet suppresses information reflecting badly on the ruling Communist Party. The WHO is overseen by U.N. member states, which mostly aren’t eager to pick quarrels with Beijing.
“The WHO should have the ability to march in and investigate something that is affecting the world,” said Kenneth Bernard, senior political adviser to a previous WHO director-general and a biodefense and health security official under Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. He now advises companies and the U.S. government on biosecurity issues. “If they can’t really investigate outbreaks, then you’re just left with whatever the government tells you.”
In the best of circumstances, such investigations are complex and can take years. When outbreaks begin, most countries focus on controlling them, rather than probing origins.
The WHO publicly accused China of being uncooperative during the 2003 epidemic of SARS—severe acute respiratory syndrome, caused by a coronavirus—after officials initially covered up the outbreak’s extent. It took another decade for scientists to ascertain that the coronavirus behind that disease originated in bats in southwest China.
The search for Covid-19’s origins got off to a poor start when a disinfection company that local officials hired sprayed down Wuhan’s Huanan seafood market, which was linked to many early cases in December 2019. Witnesses said there were live animals at the market, including wildlife, but authorities said they found only frozen specimens and none tested positive for the virus.
On Jan. 23, 2020, a WHO emergency committee recommended that a WHO-led group of scientists should “review and support efforts to investigate the animal source of the outbreak.” China’s disease-control agency chief declared the same day that he suspected the virus came from a wild animal at the market and that identifying the beast was “only a matter of time.”
The Journal reconstructed how the probe unfolded over the following year based on interviews with members of the WHO-led mission to Wuhan and with WHO staff, current and former government officials, and diplomats from the U.S., Europe and the developing world, along with independent scientists and others familiar with the effort.
Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the WHO’s director-general, discussed the matter with President Xi Jinping in a January 28 meeting. The next month, a WHO-led team, including two U.S. government experts, visited China.
Local officials appeared committed to a search and described work they had under way, according to people on that trip. But no studies emerged over the following weeks.
The virus had become a politically sensitive issue for Beijing, given an outpouring of public outrage over the government’s initial handling of the crisis.
In April, then-President Donald Trump asserted that the virus had likely come from a Wuhan lab. Chinese officials responded that it might have come from the U.S. That month, Australia became the first country to call publicly for an independent investigation into how the pandemic began, prompting a furious Chinese response. Beijing later imposed restrictions on imports of Australian wine, a move Australian and other foreign officials saw as retribution.
The more time that passed, many scientists warned, the harder it would be to trace the source.
European governments, hoping to broker a compromise, drafted a resolution calling for an independent evaluation to be put to a vote in the World Health Assembly, the WHO’s decision-making body.
China pushed hard in backroom negotiations with member states to block and then delay a probe, according to former senior U.S. officials.
“They were negotiating over every comma,” said one of the officials. The resolution adopted in May didn’t specify a time frame. Some countries wanted to say the inquiry should get under way immediately, but China objected, the official said.
Ten days later, Mr. Trump announced the U.S. would leave the WHO. Yet American officials still wanted to help shape the inquiry and had an avenue: The U.S. had a seat on the U.N. organization’s governing executive board until 2021. But the board, which includes representatives from 34 governments, wasn’t brought in to consult on negotiating the terms of research.
Instead, the WHO hashed out those details directly with China. U.S. officials had urged the WHO to consult with the board, due to the human and economic toll of the pandemic, a U.S. official said. “It was a unique scenario,” the official said. “The normal way of doing business was not appropriate.”
But America’s allies were reluctant to join in, another U.S. official said.
Consulting the board “would have hugely strengthened the WHO’s hand politically,” said Lawrence Gostin, faculty director of the O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law at Georgetown University, who has advised the WHO on international health law.
In July, the U.S. ambassador to the WHO, Andrew Bremberg, arrived at its glass-tower headquarters with a letter formalizing America’s yearlong legal process of leaving the agency. But there was still time to mend the relationship, Mr. Bremberg said he told Dr. Tedros and the WHO’s health emergencies chief, Mike Ryan.
Dr. Ryan asked: Would the U.S. let American government officials join the origins team that the WHO was convening? Some of the world’s leading disease-investigation experts work for U.S. agencies.
“Absolutely,” Mr. Bremberg said he replied.
Dr. Ryan didn’t reply to requests for comment. Dr. Tedros didn’t respond to requests for comment submitted through a spokesman.
That month, two WHO officials spent three weeks in China, negotiating the terms of the Chinese part of the inquiry. By July’s end, they had agreed on a “terms of references” document laying out short-term and long-term goals. A key point: Any work in China would be part of a global study that could lead to probes in other countries.
It didn’t call for full laboratory inspections, or mention a potential laboratory accident, and it gave China veto power over who would join the team.
Appeal for experts
The WHO on Aug. 17 appealed for experts to join the international team. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services sent names of three candidates to the WHO through the State Department. They included a virologist who is an expert on viruses that require study in high-security laboratories; a senior veterinarian; and a medical epidemiologist leading a program in global health security.
WHO staffers reviewed about 40 résumés, the agency’s Mr. Jasarevic said. None of the experts Washington recommended received a call, said U.S. officials.
“These candidates’ CVs were included in the pool of CVs evaluated,” said Mr. Jasarevic. “Unfortunately, we could not take all in the team.”
U.S. allies were concerned about what appeared to be an opaque selection process, but the U.S. struggled to get them to say so publicly or to pressure the WHO. European allies, particularly Germany, were worried about antagonizing China, a trading partner vital to their economic recovery, according to officials from several Western governments familiar with discussions. The German government didn’t respond to requests for comment.
The team comprised 10 scientists and five WHO experts, along with two representatives of the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization and two from the World Organization for Animal Health, a Paris-based international organization promoting animal disease control.
The team’s leader, Dr. Ben Embarek, is a Danish WHO veteran of 20 years who was posted to China from 2009 to 2011 and is one of the WHO’s top experts on zoonotic diseases, which originate in animals and spill over to infect humans. The team included leading specialists in animal health, epidemiology and virology, and government experts from Germany, Russia and Japan.
It included one scientist from the U.S.: Peter Daszak, a zoologist and president of EcoHealth Alliance, a New York-based nonprofit.
Dr. Daszak had experience hunting for the origins of emerging human viruses in animals, including 16 years working with researchers in China. He was on a team that pinpointed bats as the source of the coronavirus behind SARS.
Some U.S. officials and scientists were concerned some of his nonprofit’s work in China posed a conflict of interest. EcoHealth had in past years provided funding to the Wuhan Institute of Virology as part of a grant from the U.S. National Institutes of Health. The WIV is at the center of assertions by the Trump administration that the pandemic virus could have come from a lab, and Dr. Daszak had publicly dismissed the possibility.
In applying for a spot on the team, Dr. Daszak said, he described his expertise and provided a conflict-of-interest statement to the WHO including his work with the WIV. “I’m known to WHO, and I’m known for my work on this,” he told the Journal. “I recognized the historical importance of it and the value I would be able to bring to it.”
The WHO’s Mr. Jasarevic said Dr. Daszak’s expertise in studying bats and zoonotic diseases was “good experience for the team” and didn’t pose a conflict of interest.
On Jan. 5, several members began their journeys, but Chinese officials that day told the WHO final permission hadn’t yet been granted. At least one member had to turn around mid-trip.
“I am very disappointed in this news,” said Dr. Tedros in a news conference, a rare example of the WHO chief publicly criticizing Beijing. Six days later, Beijing announced the team would arrive in Wuhan on Jan. 14.
As members prepared to fly from Singapore that day, Chinese officials blocked two from boarding after they tested positive for Covid-19 antibodies. Both had tested negative in multiple PCR tests.
Restricted in Wuhan
The remaining 13, on arrival in Wuhan, began two weeks’ quarantine, confined to hotel rooms where they slept, ate, worked and worked out. Some jogged miles inside their rooms.
They had daily videoconferences with Chinese counterparts, who gave presentations on the work they had done—vital information that some scientists and foreign officials tracking the mission said could easily have been shared before the team arrived.
On Jan. 28, a year to the day from the WHO director-general’s meeting with President Xi, they were cleared to begin field visits and face-to-face meetings with Chinese counterparts. For the remainder of the trip, they were restricted mainly to one part of a hotel due to more quarantine rules and forced to eat separately from Chinese counterparts—preventing the kind of informal conversations team members said were often the most fruitful in such efforts. Their contact with anyone outside the team was limited.
It soon became evident to foreign officials and scientists tracking the mission that the team’s itinerary was partly designed to bolster China’s official narrative that the government moved swiftly to control the virus. The team’s first visit was to a hospital where they met a doctor Beijing feted as the first to raise alarms through official channels about an outbreak of unknown pneumonia. The next day, after another hospital visit, the team went to an exhibition commemorating Chinese authorities’ early “decisive victory in the battle” against the virus, paying tribute to President Xi’s leadership.
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On day three, the team visited the Huanan market and another wholesale market to see the kind of cold-storage facilities through which Beijing says the virus can spread. Such visits helped build trust with Chinese authorities, team members said.
“People think you can just waltz into a country, any country, and say ‘I want to see the books,’ ” said Dominic Dwyer, an Australian microbiologist on the team who took part in the WHO’s SARS investigation. “I don’t think diplomacy works that way.”
In between the field visits, team members said they held valuable face-to-face meetings with Chinese counterparts in which they grilled them on the information presented to the team. The team was able to visit every site it asked to see, including three laboratories, and review more aggregated data than China had shared in the previous year, team members said.
China has said it shared information gathered by more than 1,000 Chinese experts, who since July had trawled through medical records of 76,000 patients from more than 200 medical institutions in Wuhan, as well as test results from more than 50,000 animal samples.
Team members said it became clear to them that Chinese authorities would mostly present only their data analysis, not the raw numbers. And they hadn’t completed some short-term tasks the team had hoped for, including detailed studies of blood samples from before December 2019 and compiling a definitive list of animals sold at the Huanan market.
Among the 30 to 60 Chinese participants were nonscientists, including foreign-ministry officials, team members said. China’s team leader has said his team included 17 experts. The Chinese foreign ministry said none of its officials were in the expert group.
A heated exchange during one meeting touched on the pivotal question of how widely the virus spread around Wuhan before the first confirmed case, who Chinese officials say got sick on Dec. 8, 2019.
Chinese participants said that from the 76,000 medical records they examined, they had pinpointed 92 hospitalized patients from October, November and early December 2019 whose symptoms suggested they could have had Covid-19. None, however, had tested positive for antibodies, they said.
The international team was perplexed: The number seemed too small, they said. Covid-19’s primary symptoms—fever, a persistent cough—are common enough from other diseases that in a province of nearly 60 million people, vastly more cases should have been tested. Team members wanted to know what criteria had been used to select these 92 cases. And there were no connections between the patients, suggesting they had been infected in different places rather than one superspreading event.
And why did Chinese authorities test for antibodies only a few weeks before the team’s arrival, by which time they could have faded to undetectable levels?
The team pressed for immediate access to the raw, anonymized data on the 76,000 patients, which they thought could be filtered differently to identify something closer to 1,000 potential earlier Covid-19 infections. The Chinese side refused, team members said.
Chinese participants countered with research indicating the virus might have been circulating in other countries in late November and December, and suggested the WHO should study whether the pandemic originated outside China, team members said. The WHO hasn’t announced any plans for missions to other countries.
“Sometimes emotions have run really high,” Thea Fischer, a Danish epidemiologist on the international team, told reporters in Wuhan. “I am a scientist and I trust data….I don’t just trust what anyone tells me.”
More tension arose after a presentation by representatives of a Wuhan blood bank. Team members pressed them for samples from before December 2019, which they felt was the best way to test their hypothesis that the virus might have been spreading in China earlier and more widely than believed. Antibodies could still be detectable in frozen blood bank specimens.
“We said: Are you going to go back and look at older samples? And they said: Oh, well, there’s regulatory requirements about that,” said Dr. Dwyer. Many countries had legal protections for blood donors’ privacy but also mechanisms to allow access in emergencies, he recalled arguing.
“People are doing it around the world anyway, so there’s no reason why China couldn’t do it,” he added. “I mean, to me, that would have been a very sensible thing to have done earlier.”
Team members said they subsequently secured an assurance the blood samples could be tested later.
The team visited the Wuhan Institute of Virology on Feb. 3. The visit had been assembled after the team asked for one, and China set the terms. The international team spent about three hours there and met Shi Zhengli, the WIV scientist who specializes in bat coronaviruses and who has denied that SARS-CoV-2 came from her institute. Dr. Shi didn’t respond to requests for comment.
They were given presentations on the institute’s research, safety procedures, and the health of its staff, and were allowed to ask questions and visit its Biosecurity Level 4 laboratory where its most dangerous experiments are done, they said.
Dr. Fischer told reporters that the team examined the research profile of various WIV laboratories. They questioned staff about routine biosafety screening of personnel and absences of staff due to illness.
Dr. Daszak said he asked WIV researchers on the visit why a database of viruses the institute had publicly posted had been taken offline. Dr. Shi responded that the institute had had to take down the database—an Excel spreadsheet—after about 3,000 hacking attempts, Dr. Daszak said.
Show of hands
To help narrow down their conclusions, the team organized a show of hands on Feb. 8. Chinese participants sat at several rows of tables on one side of a hotel conference room with the international team facing them on the other.
The exercise focused on the four main hypotheses: Did the virus jump directly to a human from its animal reservoir? Did it spread via some intermediate animal? Was it transmitted via the food chain, especially frozen products? Did it come from a laboratory?
Each option was ranked according to a five-phrase scale: “extremely unlikely,” “unlikely,” “possible,” “likely,” and “very likely,” and participants proposed arguments for and against each before voting, team members said.
The decision to rank the lab theory as “extremely unlikely” was unanimous, they said. “I waited until everyone else had passed their opinion and then I passed mine,” Dr. Daszak said, “because of the sensitivities around my work with the Wuhan lab.”
At the news conference the next day, Dr. Ben Embarek announced the results.
The most likely hypothesis, he said: The virus spread to humans from its original animal host, like a bat, to another animal, and then to humans. The team would focus future research on that.
Next in order of priority, it would also study the idea that the virus was spreading via the food chain, particularly frozen food, Dr. Ben Embarek said. It was possible that the virus jumped directly to humans from its original animal host, he said. It was “extremely unlikely” to have come from a lab and the team wouldn’t recommend further research on that idea, he said.
Mr. Liang, his Chinese counterpart, said at the news conference a laboratory origin was impossible because no such virus was being stored in China at the time. “If there is no existence of this virus,” he said, “there will be no way that this virus would be leaked.”
After leaving Wuhan, some international team members qualified their verdict on the laboratory. They lacked the authority, expertise or access to conduct a full examination of the WIV or any other research facility, several said publicly or to the Journal.
Several said that they hadn’t been able to see the raw data or original safety, personnel, experiment and animal-breeding logs—which many other scientists say are necessary elements of a full investigation.
“It’s just a great coup by China,” said Daniel Lucey, a clinical professor of medicine at the Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth who also teaches at Georgetown University.
A thorough investigation of a potential lab leak would require experts with forensic skills similar to those who do weapons or biowarfare inspections, scientists including Dr. Dwyer said.
“We didn’t see the actual data there,” Dr. Dwyer said. “It would be nice to have seen that, particularly around the testing of their staff and so on. But that didn’t come through. They could still provide that.”
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The World Health Organization granted emergency authorization on Friday to Johnson & Johnson’s Covid-19 vaccine, adding the first one-dose option to the W.H.O.’s global arsenal against the pandemic.
The designation makes the vaccine eligible for distribution through Covax, a global initiative to ensure that low- and middle-income countries have access to vaccines. Many of those countries have barely begun their vaccination campaigns.
The Johnson & Johnson vaccine has advantages for countries in that program. Besides providing powerful protection against severe Covid-19 and death with a single shot, the vaccine can be stored for three months at refrigerator temperatures. This makes it well-suited for use in countries and locations that may not have access to the freezers and ultra-cold storage required by some other vaccines.
“As new vaccines become available, we must ensure they become part of the global solution and not another reason some countries and people are left further behind,” Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the director general of the W.H.O., said in a briefing on Friday. “We hope that this new vaccine will help to narrow vaccine inequalities and not deepen them.”
The W.H.O. will convene an advisory group next week to develop formal guidelines for the vaccine’s use.
Covax has reserved 500 million doses of the vaccine, but Johnson & Johnson has been working through production problems and has contracts to provide the United States with 200 million doses. A new production partnership with a rival pharmaceutical giant, Merck, is expected to help speed up the manufacturing process.
“We’re hoping by at least July that we have access to doses that we can be rolling out, if not even earlier,” said Dr. Bruce Aylward, a senior adviser to the W.H.O., at the Friday briefing.
NAIROBI, Kenya — As unrecorded numbers of Tanzanians succumbed to the coronavirus, the country’s president consistently downplayed the pandemic, dismissing protective measures, scoffing at vaccines and saying God had helped to eliminate the virus.
Now, President John Magufuli’s unusually lengthy absence from public view is fueling speculation that he himself is critically ill with Covid-19 and is being treated outside the country.
The rumors started swirling this week after Tanzania’s leading opposition figure, Tundu Lissu, said Mr. Magufuli was infected with the virus and was being treated in a hospital in neighboring Kenya. In a text message, Mr. Lissu said he had it “from fairly authoritative sources” that the president was flown to Kenya’s capital, Nairobi, on Monday night and checked into Nairobi Hospital, one of the largest private facilities in that country.
On Tuesday, Mr. Lissu demanded that authorities disclose the whereabouts of the president, who has not appeared in public for almost two weeks. On Wednesday, he said that Mr. Magufuli was transferred to a hospital in India to “avoid social media embarrassment” in case “the worst happened” in Kenya.
did not attend a virtual summit for the leaders of the East African regional bloc on Feb. 27 and was represented by Vice President Samia Suluhu Hassan.
“The most powerful man in Tanzania is now being sneaked about like an outlaw,” Mr. Lissu said in a Twitter post on Wednesday.
“His COVID denialism in tatters, his prayer-over-science folly has turned into a deadly boomerang,” he said in another post on Thursday.
Mr. Lissu’s commentscame after the Tanzanian human rights organization Fichua Tanzania said Mr. Magufuli had left the country to receive treatment in Kenya.
As speculation concerning his whereabouts and illness remained rife on social media, Kenya’s Daily Nation newspaper also reported that an “African leader” had been admitted to Nairobi Hospital and cited diplomatic sources who said the leader was “on a ventilator.”
threatened to punish those circulating conjectures about his health.
“The head of the state is not a television anchor who had a program but didn’t show up,” Mwigulu Nchemba, minister for legal and constitutional affairs, said in a Twitter post. “The head of state is not the leader of jogging clubs who should be in the neighborhood every day.”
Minister of Information Innocent Bashungwa warned the public and the media that using “rumors” as official information violated the country’s media laws.
Fromthe beginning of the pandemic a year ago, Mr. Magufuli, 61, railed against masks and social distancing measures, advocated unproven remedies as cures and said the country had “absolutely finished” the virus through prayer. Known popularly as “The Bulldozer,” Mr. Magufuli also questioned the efficacy of vaccines, arguing that if those produced by “the white man” were effective, AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria would have been eliminated.
Under Mr. Magufuli’s leadership, which began with his election in 2015, Tanzania, once a model of stability in the region, has slid toward autocracy, with the authorities cracking down on the press, opposition figures and rights groups. Mr. Magufuli won a second five-year term last October, in an election marred by accusations of widespread fraud and irregularities.
Mr. Lissu, who was the main opposition candidate against Mr. Magufuli, left the country for exile in Belgium, where he remains.
Since last April, Tanzania has not shared data on the coronavirus with the World Health Organization and has reported only 509 cases and 21 deaths from Covid-19. This lack of transparency has been widely condemned, including by the director general of the W.H.O., Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.
warned of a “significant increase” in Covid-19 cases. The Roman Catholic Church has also called on the government to admit the truth of the virus and has urged its congregants to avoid large gatherings.
Tanzanian leaders like Seif Sharif Hamad, the first vice president of Tanzania’s semiautonomous island of Zanzibar, have died after contracting the coronavirus. Soon after news spread that Mr. Hamad had succumbed to the virus last month, the minister of finance, Philip Mpango, appeared at a news conference in Tanzania’s capital, Dodoma, to deny rumors that he too had died. Mr. Mpango, though, was not particularly reassuring when, flanked by unmasked doctors, he began wheezing heavily and coughing fitfully.
Facing pressure, Mr. Magufuli finally changed course in late February and asked people to wear masks and heed the advice of experts.
But for Mr. Lissu, it was too little too late.
“It’s a sad comment on his stewardship of our country that it’s come to this,” Mr. Lissu said in a post on Twitter about Mr. Magufuli’s infection, which he said is evidence “that prayers, steam inhalations and other unproven herbal concoctions he’s championed are no protection against coronavirus!”
RIO DE JANEIRO — Brazilians are dying in record numbers from Covid-19. Intensive care units in a growing number of cities are full or near capacity as more contagious variants drive up cases. Elderly people have begun sleeping outside vaccination centers hoping to score a shot from the country’s limited stock.
But this is no time for new restrictions on businesses and transit, President Jair Bolsonaro said defiantly on Thursday. Instead, his government is placing tremendous hope in an experimental nasal spray, under developmentin Israel to treat severely ill Covid-19 patients, that the president has called a “miraculous product.”
On Saturday, Foreign Minister Ernesto Araújo is scheduled to travel to Israel to meet scientists who are developingthe spray, which has only undergone preliminary tests and is not being used in routine patient care anywhere. Mr. Bolsonaro’s government says it intends to test it on gravely sick patients in Brazil, where more than 260,000 people have died from the virus and where daily deaths hit a record 1,910 on Thursday.
Marcia Caldas de Castro, a Harvard University professor who studies global health, “and the way we measure the cost is in lost lives.”
Mr. Bolsonaro was an early and effusive champion of the anti-malaria drug hydroxychloroquine, which he ordered the government to mass produce. He continued to sing its praises this week, even after a team of experts from the World Health Organization strongly advised against its use, citing studies that have found it ineffective and potentially dangerous.
Brazil’s Covid-19 vaccination campaign is off to a slow and chaotic start because the government was late to start negotiating access to vaccines, whose safety and efficacy Mr. Bolsonaro has called into question.
Wednesday, the president sought to reassure Brazilians that help was on the way by announcing that his administration intended to sign a memorandum of understanding in Israel to test the nasal spray, which he said could emerge as “the real solution to treating Covid.”
The Israeli scientists who are developing the nasal spray say it’s too early to tell whether it will prove to be a pandemic game changer.
The drug, called EXO-CD24, aims to prevent “cytokine storms,” which are overwhelming immune-system responses to Covid-19 that can cause serious inflammation of the lungs, organ failure and sometimes death.
Initial clinical trials showed that 31 of 35 patients suffering from severe symptoms were discharged from the hospital after receiving two to five days of treatment with the drug, said Dr. Nadir Arber, a researcher at the Sourasky Medical Center in Tel Aviv who helped develop it.In the early trials, he said, the drug was administered by inhalation, but the goal is to administer it as a nasal spray.
Dr. Arber said he was optimistic, but urged caution. “We are still at the beginning of the process,” he said.
The first trials did not include a placebo for comparison. The treatment has not undergone advanced clinical trials and its efficacy has not been assessed in a peer-reviewed scientific journal.
about 6.6 million people in Brazil — about 3.1 percent of the population — had received at least one dose of a vaccine.
the governors wrote.
Mr. Bolsonaro’s government maligned the Chinese vaccine that has been the most widely used in Brazil so far. It took a pass on an offer last August from Pfizer, of 70 million doses of its vaccine. It signed up for the W.H.O.’s vaccine procurement system, known as Covax, but only requested the minimum amount of doses required to participate: enough for 10 percent of a country’s population.
Still, Mr. Bolsonaro suggested on Thursday that the government is doing as well as can be expected in the global vaccine race.
“You have idiots, people on social media and in the press saying: go buy more vaccines,” Mr. Bolsonaro said Thursday, sounding exasperated.
He added: “There are none for sale around the world.”
Ernesto Londoño reported from Rio de Janeiro, Letícia Casado reported from Brasília and Adam Rasgon reported from Jerusalem.