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WHO told to step up investigations into Covid-19 virus origin

Seafood and fresh food market in Wuhan, Hubei, China. Some early cases of SARS-CoV-2 were traced back to Wuhan’s Wholesale Seafood Market, but not all – adding to the mystery of where it first emerged. Credit: Arend Kuester/Flickr.

World Health Organization (WHO) member states called on the body to step up investigations into the source of the Covid-19 pandemic at a high-level World Health Assembly (WHA) meeting on Tuesday.

The member state debate followed presentations of two reviews of the pandemic response, including reviews of WHO’s Health Emergencies programme and a report by the Independent Panel for Pandemic Preparedness and Response (IPPR), just getting underway. The IPPR review is intended to take a more step-back approach, evaluating pandemic responses by individual countries as well as by WHO.

“It’ll be important to establish a “chronology” about what happened in the emergence and spread of the SARSCoV-2,” said Helen Clark, former prime minister of New Zealand, at the meeting on Tuesday. She is serving as the co-chair of the IPPR committee along with Helen Johnson Sirleaf, former prime minister of Liberia.

Member states would also like to see yet another new WHO committee dig more deeply into the murky history surrounding the original source of the SARS-CoV2 virus, and its origins.

Countries say investigation of the virus origins should move faster. Only recently has WHO formulated the committee of international experts to probe the issue more systematically, which was mandated by the WHA in May – and only after the names were approved by Beijing. Moreover, the first critical elements of inquiry, to probe who were in fact the first people to become infected in China and the role of the Wuhan wild animal market, will be led by Chinese scientists.

At Tuesday’s WHA session, a number of countries expressed their impatience and that the quest for the virus origins needed to move ahead more aggressively.

“The investigation into the sources of the virus should be prioritised,” said the United Kingdom at the debate, striking a chord that the United States and other European allies also echoed.

Underlying the comments are palpable fears that the committee's mission could be watered down and lost in the same geopolitical gulf that divides China's controlled information regime from European and western allies.

“The terms of reference for investigating the SARS-CoV-2 virus origins was not negotiated in a transparent way with member states,” said the US.

“Member states only received TOR [terms of reference] a few days ago. And it seems to be inconsistent with the mandate provided by the WHA's member states,” the US added, referring to the WHA resolution mandating the virus quest, which was approved by member states already in May.

At the close of Tuesday's WHA session, WHO Director General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus attempted to reassure jittery member states that the experts appointed would be serious and impartial : “The review team on SARS-CoV2 origins will be coming from the United States, Russia, Australia, Sudan, Denmark, The Netherlands, Germany, Japan, Vietnam and the United Kingdom, ” he said.

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