If China Won't Cooperate, Scientists Believe COVID Origin Investigation Still Possible

China is rejecting international calls for additional investigations into the COVID-19 origin, but with samples from around the world and conversations that health agencies had with the Wuhan Institute of Virology, some scientists believe an investigation is possible even without Beijing on board.

A team of international researchers convened by the World Health Organization (WHO) visited China earlier this year and determined the most likely possibility is that COVID-19 originated naturally. Beijing uses the report, which didn't draw a definitive conclusion, as an exoneration of the Wuhan Institute of Virology, but the rest of the world isn't letting the lab off the hook so easily and has pushed China to be more transparent in future studies.

Ideally, any investigation would have China's full cooperation, but in the event that doesn't happen, 31 scientists and science communicators believe a thorough investigation still has a "realistic chance of success."

To carry out that type of investigation, the signatories of the open letter released on Monday should include a "systematic search" for documents, samples and pathogens from the Wuhan lab were taken offline.

China faced criticism for censoring information about the pandemic, and the deletion of genetic sequences from a database fueled concerns about Beijing's ability to be transparent. Jesse Bloom, a computational biologist and specialist in viral evolution at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, recovered the 13 genetic sequences that could help answer questions about how COVID-19 originated.

"There is no plausible scientific reason for the deletion," Bloom wrote in a preprint report. "It, therefore, seems likely the sequences were deleted to obscure their existence...this suggests a less than wholehearted effort to trace the early spread of the epidemic."

Along with obtaining additional data from the Wuhan Institute of Virology, the open letter calls for the release of relevant communications between the lab and its partners in North America and Europe. That includes conversations the EcoHealth Alliance, the United States Agency for International Development, and the National Institutes of Health had with the lab.

china covid origin scientists cooperation investigation
In an open letter, 31 scientists and science communicators said they believe an investigation into the COVID-19 origin could be successful without China's cooperation. Above, people walking in Wuhan, China, on April 9, 2020. Getty Images

While the deletion of the sequences sparks questions about China's motives, the sequences don't prove the lab was the origin.

However, Bloom's discovery that the earliest cases of COVID-19, which were linked to the Huanan Seafood Market, were more distantly related to the closest relatives in bats than later samples indicated that the market likely wasn't the origin point.

To help understand how COVID-19 may have jumped from an animal to a human, an investigation without China's help would require a "thorough evaluation" of the farm-animal and wild-life trades in Asia and their "potential roles in the pandemic," according to the open letter.

China not only has pushed back on the possibility that its lab was the source of the pandemic, but officials have thrown out the hypothesis that China wasn't even home to the first case. Officials have pointed the finger at Italy, Spain and the United States. However, they've provided little evidence for the claims.

Getting to the heart of the origin of COVID-19, according to scientists who signed the open letter, requires testing and analyzing hospital and environmental samples from several countries to understand the early spread of the virus and the "initial emergence."

As has been the case with most pandemic-related conversations, the origin of COVID-19 has become a highly polarizing issue. The possibility that the virus originated in a lab was routinely dismissed as a conspiracy theory and attack on Chinese scientists during the early months of the pandemic, a stance those who support the possibility of a lab leak saw as a hindrance to investigations.

Some scientists also took issue with the WHO report because they didn't feel it gave the lab leak hypothesis the same consideration as the naturally occurring hypothesis. The possibility of the theory has since become more mainstream and came with additional support for further studies into how COVID-19 originated.

To help foster "rational debate" and drive further research efforts, signatories of the open letter believe a "broad semi-quantitative assessment" of the current evidence in favor of each scenario should be done.

The 31 scientists and science communicators favor a world in which China cooperates with another investigation and acknowledge its refusal would mean moving forward with a lack of access to important samples, personnel and records.

The letter suggested the world give China a 60-day deadline to jump on board, a timeline that could coincide with the presentation of a report to President Joe Biden. In May, Biden instructed the Intelligence Community to "redouble" its efforts to identify the origin of COVID-19, giving them 90 days to conduct their research. Along with analyzing information, Biden asked the Intelligence Community to come up with any questions they felt China needed to answer.

Biden's push for an investigation put added strain on an already-deteriorating relationship with China, and the Global Times, a state-run outlet, wrote in an op-ed that China won't accept "any investigation" by U.S. intelligence agencies.

"If we find any trace of US intelligence agencies taking action in China, we will immediately strike heavily," the op-ed said.

If China rejects "every opportunity" to join a comprehensive investigation, the signatories of the open letter said China "should not be afforded a veto over whether or not the rest of the world carries out the fullest possible investigation."

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