BEIJING — The World Health Organization hasn't even released its final report exploring the origins of the coronavirus, and yet it's the subject of a new rift between China and the U.S., with the embattled health organization in the middle.
The WHO led a four-week fact-finding mission in China to find out more about where the coronavirus came from.
The tour has been dogged by questions over whether Chinese officials have been fully transparent and cooperative in releasing data and whether the WHO team members have been fully independent and impartial when it comes to dealing with their host country.
"It's kind of disappointing that it's come to controversy already — the report is not even out," Peter Daszak, a member of the mission who is president of the EcoHealth Alliance, a New York nonprofit focused on emerging infectious diseases, said Monday. "I hope the politics steps to one side and lets the science speak for once. We've done enough politicking around this pandemic."
Over the weekend, the Biden administration questioned not only the actions of the Chinese government, but also the conduct of the WHO team itself.
"We have 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," national security adviser Jake Sullivan said in a statement Saturday.
The Chinese Embassy in Washington hit back, accusing the U.S. of "pointing fingers at other countries who have been faithfully supporting the WHO."
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That was a reference to former President Donald Trump's withdrawal from the WHO after he accused it of being "a puppet of China." Trump wasn't alone in some of his criticisms; plenty of other experts alleged that Chinese officials initially covered up aspects of the virus and that the WHO was too credulous in believing and amplifying Beijing's reassurances.
On Monday, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the WHO's director-general, defended the WHO-led team, whose experts comprise a range of organizations and nationalities.
"Whatever conclusions that come, these are independent experts," Tedros said at a news conference. "We don't tell them what to do. They will present their independent report."
Several news organizations, including The New York Times, suggested that Chinese officials had pressed the team to accept Beijing’s narrative about the source of the virus and refused to hand over key data, including blood samples that could give vital information about how widely the virus might have been circulating in China in 2019.
The waters were muddied further over the weekend, when one of the WHO team members quoted in the reports tweeted that her words had been "twisted, casting shadows over important scientific work."
Daszak again poured cold water on the reports, saying it was an "open and transparent process" and criticizing the pre-emptive political reaction.
"They've not seen what's in the report. Read the report, and then we'll talk about whether it's enough or whether more needs to be done," he said. "You know, I really hope that we're going to leave the politics of the Trump era behind."
He added: "It's not fruitful. It's not useful. It's politics. And what we need now is science. So let the report come out. And then let's talk."
He confirmed that there had been "heated discussions" between the WHO team and its Chinese counterparts but characterized them as no different from the discussions among many teams of scientists. "We had robust discussions, for sure," he said. "But we have a consensus. I think that's a really important point."
The WHO team was never expected to find anything that definitely proved where the virus came from.
"It's not realistic to expect that we will come out of this after and be like: Here it is," team member Marion Koopmans, a Dutch virology professor at Erasmus University in Rotterdam, said during the fact-finding mission in Wuhan this month. "It takes time. And that doesn’t mean things are covered up."
But this week, Daszak said the team was able to glean a "huge amount of new information."
While he said that the virus was "extremely unlikely" to have escaped from the Wuhan Institute of Virology, a theory pushed by Trump and others, he didn't discount the idea that it traveled inside frozen food packaging. The theory, not widely supported by experts outside China, has allowed the country's state-controlled media to suggest that the virus originated elsewhere.
A far more likely explanation centered on the Wuhan market, Daszak said. At least 10 vendors were selling animals that can carry coronaviruses, and their supply chains led to farms in southern China where bats carry close relatives of the virus, he said.
"It's a gun without the smoke," Daszak said. "It is as clear as day to me that that's a plausible pathway and to most of the team."
He added, "It was a resounding, unanimous yes, this is the most likely pathway from everyone in the room, including on the China side, too."
Janis Mackey Frayer reported from Beijing and Alexander Smith reported from London.