The World Health Organization is calling for more cooperation from China in its search for the origins of Covid-19, a topic back in the news after a scientific journal reported the agency shelved its investigation over a lack of collaboration.
WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus denied that the WHO backed off its origins work, saying the answers are critical for scientific and moral reasons. But he did acknowledge the difficulty the public health organization is facing in getting China’s full participation more than three years after the virus emerged.
“As recently as seven weeks ago, I sent a letter to a top official in China asking for cooperation,” Tedros said during a press briefing. “I assure you we will continue to push and continue to pursue until we get the answer.”
An article in the journal Nature on Tuesday said the WHO had paused the second phase of its investigation into the pandemic’s origins due to difficulties conducting key studies in China.
China’s foreign ministry pushed back against Nature’s report on Wednesday, saying the country had “shared information and updates on origins tracing” with the WHO.
“We support and participate in global origins tracing based on science,” ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin told a briefing in Beijing on Wednesday. “We have received two WHO expert teams for origins study in China, and concluded a report that is science based and authoritative.”
“We will continue such efforts and communication,” Wang said.
The WHO, which was criticized early in the pandemic for not holding China to account as the virus spread, has been more vocal recently as a major Omicron surge swamped the world’s most populous country. Last month, officials urged Beijing to share more detailed information after China abandoned its testing efforts and reported comparatively few deaths even as hospitals and crematoriums were overwhelmed during its reopening.
The panel released a preliminary report last June, which noted that crucial data wasn’t yet available for a complete understanding of how the virus took root. Getting that additional information is proving difficult.
“Let me also be very clear that we continue to ask for more cooperation and collaboration with our colleagues in China to advance studies that need to take place in China,” Maria Van Kerkhove, the WHO’s Covid technical lead, said in a video posted to Twitter on Wednesday. “It is becoming increasingly difficult because the more time that passes, the more difficult it becomes to really understand what happened in those early stages of the pandemic.”
China has faced more questions over the transparency of its Covid data in recent weeks, posting the biggest drop in Covid deaths among more than 20 places hit hardest by the Omicron variant.
The WHO was asked in 2020 to help identify the source of the virus, and conducted a weeks-long joint mission with a team of international scientists and researchers from China. The report was released in March 2021, though it was criticized as incomplete by the US.
Later that year, the WHO formed a more permanent scientific advisory group to look at the origins of the virus, along with any future outbreaks. With assistance from Philip Glamann and Angus Whitley/Bloomberg