In February 2023 an article in Nature announced that the WHO has “quietly shelved the second phase” of the “much-anticipated scientific investigation” into the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic. Referring to political challenges, the team of experts will not conduct Phase 2 of the investigation into where, when, and how the virus originated. This is likely to enable further fuel for theories that COVID-19 was the result of laboratory leaks.  

Note: the article by Nature has been refuted by Dr van Kerkhove and colleagues at WHO.

Hands are tied 

Nature reports that, without access to China, WHO is unable to investigate the origins of COVID-19 further. Dr Angela Rasmussen of the University of Saskatchewan told Nature that “their hands are really tied”.  

This is potentially due to political tensions exacerbated by claims that the virus was a lab leak from the Wuhan Institute of Virology. Encouraged by politicians in the US in particular, the theory lends itself to accusatory and demonising narratives. However, the report from Phase 1 of WHO’s investigation suggested in 2021 that the possibility of a lab leak was “extremely unlikely”.  

Dr Maria van Kerkhove, WHO epidemiologist, told Nature that there “is no Phase 2” as “plans have changed”. Although she did not specifically point fingers, she did indicate that “politics” had “hampered progress”.  

A delicate situation poorly handled 

Dr Gerald Keusch, associate director at the National Emerging Infectious Diseases Laboratory Institute in Massachusetts blames the investigation’s demise on poor handling from the global community, China, and WHO. He suggests that WHO should have been “relentless” in forging more positive relations with China, and more transparent about the state of play.   

Dr van Kerkhove is allegedly frustrated that efforts to establish collaboration with colleagues in China have not been fruitful.  

“We really, really want to be able to work with our colleagues there”.  

Other studies 

Nature reports that beyond the confines of the “formal WHO-led process”, some studies have gone ahead. For example, an analysis of donor blood at the Wuhan Blood Centre before December 2019 was conducted by researchers in Beijing and Wuhan. Looking for signs that SARS-CoV-2 had infected patients early in the pandemic, the team did not find any blocking antibodies in more than 88,000 samples.  

This study suggests that the virus had “probably” not emerged as early as September and was “not widespread in Wuhan in late 2019”. Another Chinese study has not yet been peer reviewed, by reports traces of SARS-CoV-2 at the Huanan seafood market, Wuhan. Samples from sewage and surfaces led the researchers to conclude that the virus was most likely shed by humans. However, others are eager to examine the data to potentially identify animal species.  

For more on pandemic threats and understanding emerging diseases join us at the World Vaccine Congress in Washington this April.