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Millennium Post

Going nowhere

After months of speculations, false starts and controversial previews, WHO's report on the (likely) origins of the COVID-19 virus has finally been released. The 124-page report, which was released recently, first and foremost asserts that the most likely cause for the spread was another animal that spread the virus from bats to humans. The report asserts that the animal origin hypothesis seems most likely with the popular lab leak hypothesis being an unlikely prospect. The report even recommended widening the scope of the investigation, including across Southeast Asia and investigating more suspicious animal species. These other species include pangolins, rabbits, ferret badgers, etc. The report also went on to give some credence to the Chinese theory that the virus could have been transmitted on frozen food packaging from outside China. As was previously discussed when details of this fact-finding mission to China were first leaked, this report could be a big win for China in trying to hold back the narrative of blame that it has found itself at the centre of. But not so fast. Following the release of the report, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus was diplomatic but firm in stating that he did not believe his team was in the position to carry out a thorough enough investigation in China. He furthermore asserted that it is too early to rule out the lab origin story. Ghebreyesus was previously quite critical of China for delaying the fact-finding mission and not being straightforward and transparent in sharing data with the team. He has called for additional fact-finding missions with more experts to form a clearer picture of on-ground circumstances. He is not alone in questioning the validity of this report. Critics of this report, and there are plenty, have particularly rallied around how the lab hypothesis was dismissed off-hand by the team on the basis of statements and facts given to them by China. No deeper investigation was done even though there is some credible proof of the fact that Wuhan virology lab does have many-many suspicious circumstances like reports of sick lab researchers in 2019 and the mysterious nature of work the lab did in regards to the military. Naturally, there are also those who agree with the report and do not want any scientific energy wasted in what they see as an effort to politicise the investigation while obscuring the real importance of finding the source. Finding the source helps us all collectively plan for the next pandemic and chasing unlikely, controversial leads is unlikely to have a helping effect. But the whole matter has clearly and unavoidably taken on a political turn. The US, alongside 13 other nations issued a joint statement in response to the report which, while not mentioning the lab theory, indicated that it did not consider the Wuhan study free, fair or comprehensive. India too independently expressed concern with the report later on when it called for a 'comprehensive and expert-led mechanism' to expeditiously investigate the cause of the virus. India too supports more follow-up studies and reports in this matter. To say the least, Beijing was not happy with such assertions of doubt regarding the report. It contended that it had been responsible and transparent in its dealings with the WHO team and has spoken out against the unethical politicisation of the study by its critics. China has not commented on its stance on another round of investigations. But even if it did consent, it is hard to change the outcome of such fact-finding missions. China effectively holds all the cards in such an investigation. They control the timing, they control the access. They have possession of all the on-ground facts and evidence that the teams would need to build their hypothesis. It was meant to achieve nothing but absolving China of any burden of wrong-doing in regards to the pandemic. In this regard, it is easy to see why many observers are concerned that this game of circular and ultimately futile politics will only see science becoming the casualty as no clear answer on the pandemic will emerge. This of course puts a damper on the widespread political rhetoric that we are all in this pandemic together and that collective action is the only way out. Of the more than 20 nations that recently united in their call for a pandemic treaty, major powers like the US, China, India, etc., were conspicuously absent. All in all, the pandemic has proven once again that science and public health can become a toxic mixture when political rhetoric is added to the mix.

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