AIDS Healthcare Foundation (AHF) calls for the team that is currently investigating the origins of the novel coronavirus in Wuhan, China to be disbanded and reassembled by a completely independent panel with unfettered access and diplomatic immunity for all members. A conflict of interest of one of the current WHO-sanctioned team members and the tightly choreographed format of the field research cast doubt on the investigation’s credibility and the validity of the eventual findings.
The alleged conflict of interest stems from the connection one of the investigators, a British zoologist and EcoHealth Alliance President Dr. Peter Daszak has with the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV). According to The Wall Street Journal, Dr. Daszak has worked closely with a leading virologist at WIV, Dr. Shi Zhengli on the study of bat viruses, which from 2014, was in part funded by US government grants. The institute is located just a few miles away from the wet market where Chinese authorities say SARS-CoV-2 first emerged.
“For the WHO [World Health Organization] investigation in Wuhan to stand up to scientific scrutiny, neutrality is a must,” said AHF President Michael Weinstein. “Dr. Daszak has a clear-cut conflict of interest that should’ve disqualified him from participation on the WHO team. The fact the WHO sanctioned it in the first place is completely out of line. Now, any conclusions of the investigation will be tainted by one more fragment of uncertainty. Regrettably, the only plausible way out of this situation is to start over – to disband the WHO team, and charge a neutral, non-political body with reconstituting it. To ensure the highest degree of independence, all members of the new team should have the full protection of diplomatic immunity.”
Dr. Daszak has repeatedly denied speculations that SARS-CoV-2 may have emerged from WIV following a lab accident, including in a letter to The Lancet in February 2020. Despite the ongoing investigation, Dr. Daszak recently spoke about its progress to CNN from Wuhan, again refuting the possibility of the virus escaping from the institute.
“WHO investigators should be taking utmost care to avoid any appearance of bias – speaking to the media at this time is counterproductive and may be perceived as an attempt to sway the narrative,” added Weinstein. “To put conspiracy theories to rest, such as that the virus was manufactured, or that it arrived in Wuhan in frozen food as has been bizarrely proposed by the Chinese media – all possibilities about the origin of this outbreak should be thoroughly investigated by completely neutral parties. Transparency is the best weapon against deception and ignorance.”
From the outset, Chinese authorities have taken steps to limit transparency, further complicating the WHO team’s investigation. It took over a year for the WHO and China to agree on the terms of the investigation and the composition of the team, and the organization has taken great pains to emphasize that the purpose of the investigation is not to assign blame for the pandemic.
When the team finally departed for China, two researchers were initially barred from entering the country due to visa problems. Subsequently, the team was quarantined for two weeks. Once the work finally began on January 28, 2021, media reports indicate the team’s movements and access to sources such as family members of early COVID-19 victims and whistleblower doctors have been tightly controlled. Given the amount of time that has passed since the beginning of the outbreak and how much evidence may have degraded or been lost, it is difficult to see how the investigation will produce definitive or convincing results.
“It is profoundly sad and disappointing that this investigation has turned into a media performance shaped by the Chinese authorities toward political ends—namely to escape any blame and embarrassment related to the COVID-19 outbreak while still offering a veneer of cooperation and transparency,” said AHF Chief of Global Advocacy and Policy Terri Ford. “Humanity’s understanding of how the pandemic started, where it’s going, and how we can best protect global public health hinges on this vital investigation, and yet with so much on the line, we have to contend with conflicts of interest and politicians who are worried about looking bad. The WHO and China have a vested interest in an outcome to the investigation that casts them in a favorable light, but this is incompatible with public health – it’s time for a truly independent body to look into the origins of SARS-CoV-2.”