‘Frankly wrong’: WHO official derides US intelligence on COVID

US intelligence on the supposed origin of the coronavirus pandemic is not reliable, a member of the special WHO mission to China said on Wednesday, after Washington cast doubt on the transparency of the probe.

The World Health Organization mission ended on Tuesday without finding the source of the virus, but members had to walk a diplomatic tightrope during their stay, with the US urging a “robust” investigation and China warning against politicising the issue.

Information dribbled out via their personal Twitter accounts during the mission, but more details and opinions emerged as they prepared to leave the country.

Peter Daszak, a member of the WHO team, waded directly into the murky geopolitics that covers the pandemic origin story.

US President Joe Biden “has to look tough on China”, he said in a tweet, adding: “Please don’t rely too much on US intel: increasingly disengaged under Trump & frankly wrong on many aspects.”

Daszak also tweeted the WHO team worked “flat out under the most politically charged environment possible”.

His comments were linked to an article referencing US Department of State comments that cast doubt over the transparency of China’s cooperate with the WHO mission.

Department of State spokesman Ned Price said the White House “clearly supports this investigation”, but shared criticism that China concealed information.

Asked if he thought China had fully cooperated with the WHO team, Price told reporters: “I think the jury’s still out.”

Coronavirus has killed 2.3 million, infected close to 107 million people, and devastated the global economy. Questions over the handling of the initial outbreak in central China have sparked an intense diplomatic row between Washington and Beijing.

In turn, China emphasised on Wednesday the Wuhan probe is just “one part” of an investigation into the origins of the coronavirus.

“We hope that the US, like China, will adopt an open and transparent attitude and invite WHO experts to carry out research and studies in the US,” said foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin.

Virus sources

Daszak heads US-based non-profit EcoHealth Alliance, which monitors epidemic outbreaks and has partnered for more than a decade with the Wuhan Institute of Virology on joint research of coronaviruses.

He has been one of the most vocal proponents of a natural origin and, in comments to AFP news agency, last year dismissed the possibility of a leak from the Wuhan lab as a politically motivated “conspiracy theory” pushed by former US President Donald Trump.

Last year, the Trump administration abruptly terminated a US government grant supporting the group’s joint research with the Wuhan facility, a move the scientific community criticised as political.

Despite failing to find the origins of the virus a year after the pandemic began, the team of experts in China did agree it likely jumped from bats to an unknown animal species before transmitting to humans.

They also concluded the theory of lab experiment gone wrong was “extremely unlikely”, while introducing new avenues of inquiry – opening up the possibility of looking into China’s view it may have originated overseas or was spread by frozen foods.

Beijing has repeatedly floated the theory the virus was brought to China through the packaging on so-called cold-chain products such as frozen seafood, linking these to various domestic outbreaks in the past few months.

Widespread concerns

While WHO emergencies chief Mike Ryan has previously said “there is no evidence that food or the food chain is participating in transmission”, the WHO mission members on Tuesday appeared to give weight to China’s theory it could be carried on cold-chain products.

There had also been widespread concerns about the scientists’ access to data a year on from the outbreak, amid accusations that Beijing downplayed the initial severity of the outbreak.

Several WHO team members insisted they were granted full access to the sites and individuals they requested to visit.

But Danish epidemiologist and team member Thea Kolsen Fischer appeared to break ranks, revealing after the briefing they were not given raw data and instead relied on analyses by Chinese scientists.

“If you come as an outsider and look at the individual, identifiable data, you would most likely – in most scenarios – get access to aggregated data,” she said, referring to the common practice in most countries.

 

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