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WHO chief urges probe of COVID lab leak theory as leaders eye pandemic treaty

Director Tedros says further investigation of possibility needed, laments difficulties that experts had in accessing raw data in China

World Health Organization (WHO) Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus speaks during a press conference at the World Health Organization headquarters in Geneva on June 25, 2020. (Fabrice Coffrini/AFP)
World Health Organization (WHO) Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus speaks during a press conference at the World Health Organization headquarters in Geneva on June 25, 2020. (Fabrice Coffrini/AFP)

The World Health Organization chief called Tuesday for investigators looking into the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic to delve deeper into a theory about a possible lab leak incident.

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus welcomed a long-delayed report from an international mission tasked with probing how the virus that causes COVID-19 first jumped to humans, saying it “advances our understanding in important ways.”

But in a briefing to member states, he stressed it also “raises further questions that will need to be addressed by further studies.”

The report, compiled by WHO-appointed international experts and their Chinese counterparts, did not draw any firm conclusions, but did rank a range of hypotheses according to how likely they thought they were.

The report, seen by AFP ahead of its Tuesday publication, had judged a lab-leak hypothesis “extremely unlikely,” saying the virus behind COVID-19 had most probably jumped from bats to humans via an intermediary animal.

But Tedros urged them to look deeper into the lab theory.

Members of the World Health Organization (WHO) team investigating the origins of the novel coronavirus arrive by car at the Wuhan Institute of Virology in Wuhan, in China’s central Hubei province on February 3, 2021. (Hector Retamal/AFP)

“Although the team has concluded that a laboratory leak is the least likely hypothesis, this requires further investigation, potentially with additional missions involving specialist experts, which I am ready to deploy,” he said.

The WHO chief also voiced concern that the international expert team had “expressed the difficulties they encountered in accessing raw data” while in China.

“I expect future collaborative studies to include more timely and comprehensive data sharing,” he said.

Meanwhile, world leaders pushed for a new international treaty to prepare for the next global pandemic — and avoid the unseemly scramble for vaccines hampering the COVID-19 response.

Leaders from 25 countries, the European Union and the WHO sought to get the ground rules down in writing to streamline and speed up the reaction to future global outbreaks.

The treaty would aim to ensure that information, virus pathogens, technology to tackle the pandemic and products such as vaccines are shared swiftly and fairly among nations.

“The time to act is now. The world cannot afford to wait until the pandemic is over to start planning for the next one,” Tedros told a virtual press conference.

Without an internationally-coordinated pandemic response plan, “we remain vulnerable,” he warned.

Freshly dug graves are exposed at the Campo da Esperanca cemetery in Brasilia, Brazil, Tuesday, March 23, 2021 (AP Photo/Eraldo Peres)

The call came in a joint article published in international newspapers on Tuesday, penned by leaders from five continents.

The signatories included Germany’s Angela Merkel, Britain’s Boris Johnson, France’s Emmanuel Macron, South Korea’s Moon Jae-in, South Africa’s Cyril Ramaphosa, Indonesia’s Joko Widodo and Chile’s Sebastian Pinera.

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