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Calls For An Open Investigation Into The Possibility COVID-19 Leaked From A Lab


This week, the World Health Organization released a long-awaited joint report with China into the source of COVID-19. One of its big conclusions is that the virus is most likely to have originated in bats in southern China and then made its way into humans via some sort of intermediate animal. But some people are not buying this theory. NPR China correspondent John Ruwitch reports.

JOHN RUWITCH, BYLINE: Soon after the WHO-China report came out, the U.S. and 13 other countries expressed concerns about it. Their joint statement did not mention the possibility that the virus might have escaped from a laboratory that studies coronaviruses in the Chinese city of Wuhan. But it did call for more transparent and independent analysis free from political interference. The head of the WHO, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, was blunter, saying the lab leak theory had not been assessed extensively enough and requires further investigation and potentially additional missions to China. Jamie Metzl is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. He agrees.

JAMIE METZL: I'm not saying that I am certain that COVID-19 stems from an accidental lab leak. But it would be absolutely irresponsible and could only be politically motivated to say that it's not even worth having a full investigation.

RUWITCH: Metzl says while there's no smoking gun for a lab leak...

METZL: In my view, there's more circumstantial evidence that it came from a lab than it came through a series of zoonotic jumps through intermediate animal hosts because there's no evidence of that.

RUWITCH: Many scientists say just the opposite. Based on the available evidence, they believe the coronavirus appears far more likely to have emerged naturally. Still, critics say that while the WHO team was able to visit state-run biolabs in Wuhan and talk to scientists, they did not investigate the lab leak theory thoroughly enough.

ALINA CHAN: I think that this situation we're in, it really is setting a precedent for the future.

RUWITCH: Alina Chan is a postdoctoral scientist working on genetics at the Broad Institute in Boston.

CHAN: This time, it's China that's in the hot spot, but next time, maybe it's not China. So if we decide that we cannot investigate it, we just give up this time, then other countries might feel that there isn't an accountability mechanism in place.

RUWITCH: And that could potentially lead to less stringent and more dangerous lab conditions, she says. Not far beneath the surface of the debate, however, are geopolitical tensions between China and the United States. President Trump and his administration embraced the lab leak theory and pushed early for an investigation. Scott Kennedy with the Center for Strategic and International Studies says China's foot dragging on an investigation, counteraccusations and penchant for secrecy haven't helped it.

SCOTT KENNEDY: The West prides itself on its openness and transparency relative to authoritarian places like China. So in the competition for soft power and legitimacy, this is a useful topic to continue to push.

RUWITCH: But he and others say the search for the origins of the virus shouldn't bog down U.S. policy toward China. Deborah Seligsohn, an assistant professor at Villanova University and former U.S. diplomat, says piling pressure on China is only going to make Beijing defensive.

DEBORAH SELIGSOHN: I think that leads to a lot of accusations, and eventually, someone decides to diffuse it by coming up with some sort of face-saving agreement. But I don't think it actually leads to science.

RUWITCH: And that means it may make it harder to find the answers that everyone is looking for.

John Ruwitch, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

John Ruwitch is a correspondent with NPR's international desk. He covers Chinese affairs.