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The failure to speedily investigate Covid’s real origins leave us vulnerable to another pandemic


The World Health Organisation, the body charged with finding how a virus from central China killed more than ten million people and upended the world economy, has dropped the ball. An article appeared in Nature magazine this week, headlined “WHO abandons plans for crucial second phase of COVID-origins investigation”, quoting one of WHO’s scientists Maria Van Kerkhove as saying that “there is no phase two…that plan has changed”. A day later the WHO insisted it had been misunderstood and it would continue investigating.


Such confusion is what we have come to expect from this unaccountable, first-class-travel-addicted, Geneva-based bureaucracy. In 2020 the WHO took a year even to begin investigating, appointed people with huge vested interests to its team, then sent them on a brief trip to Wuhan in early 2021. That ended with a farcical press conference in which to general incredulity the WHO endorsed the Chinese regime’s view that a lab leak was extremely unlikely and would not be investigated further, while the ludicrous possibility that the virus arrived in Wuhan on frozen fish from abroad was eminently reasonable.


WHO then backtracked and promised a further investigation. Two years on and we are still waiting for any news from their work. To call this progress sluggish would be an insult to molluscs. If ten million people had died from an industrial or nuclear accident, we would not spend three years shrugging our shoulders and saying we may never find out how it happened.


The excuse, of course, is that the Chinese government refuses to provide full details of what happened in 2019 Wuhan’s hospitals or its virology laboratories. Not that WHO, which always does what China says, will put it that way. “The politics across the world of this really hampered progress on understanding the origins,” is as close as Dr van Kerkhove gets.


Everybody knows why this is happening. The Chinese authorities having failed to find infected animals in the local seafood market, having failed to fool the world with a red herring about pangolins (whose virus was different), having seen their frozen seafood theory ridiculed, are running out of alibis to exculpate the Wuhan Institute of Virology. Over the past decade, that laboratory collected more SARS-like coronaviruses than any other lab in the world, brought them to Wuhan from thousands of miles away, hybridised them, manipulated their genes, infected human airway cells and humanised mice with them, drew up plans to insert into them the very unique genetic feature that made covid so infectious, and refused to share its now deleted virus database.


This is not the first time the WHO has proved unfit for mission. In 2014 it initially turned away warnings that ebola was getting out of control in west Africa, for fear of upsetting national governments. In 2015 it told the world that climate change is the greatest threat to human health in the current century, suggesting that it might be neglecting the day job of preventing pandemics. To this day it demands bans on vaping, despite overwhelming evidence that vaping saves lives by reducing smoking.


This time WHO has not only failed at its job. It’s worse than that. By saying it was investigating, then failing, it has prevented others doing the work. Other scientific bodies and other governments, including Britain’s, when challenged, kept saying, “we’re leaving this to the WHO”. Only the US Congress, now that Republicans control the House of Representatives, is now investigating.


The failure to investigate covid’s origins leaves the world vulnerable to the next pandemic. The two practices most likely to have caused this one – selling farmed wildlife in markets and harvesting bat viruses for laboratory experiments – continue almost unabated, each using the excuse that it might be the other that caused this pandemic.


Avian influenza is now spreading through wild bird flocks in a far more deadly form than before and starting to infect mammals. We don’t really know how or why it has happened now, though the suspicion is that it is something to do with intensified chicken farming. Investigations are going on at the WHO but – guess what – slowly.


Meanwhile terrorists and rogue regimes are watching and licking their lips. You mean, they say to themselves, all we have to do to bring the world economy to its knees is find a highly infectious but not very lethal virus and unleash it in a city, and the World Health Organisation won’t even bother to investigate properly?


By Matt Ridley | Tagged:  coronavirus