The World Health Organization’s chief said a mission to study the origins of the coronavirus in China didn’t adequately analyze the possibility of a lab leak before it concluded that the pathogen probably spread from bats to humans via another animal.
Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said even though the international team of scientists determined that a leak is the least likely hypothesis for the origin of the pandemic, it requires further investigation. He said he’s ready to deploy additional missions involving specialist experts as he doesn’t believe the assessment was extensive enough. He made the comments in a briefing to WHO member countries Tuesday.
Although Tedros has consistently said all options remain on the table and the WHO wouldn’t shut down any lines of inquiry, Tuesday’s comments mark the first time he’s openly speculated about the possibility of a leak. The WHO chief was criticized by Trump administration officials for being too deferential to China in the early days of the pandemic.
Tedros' statment came after numerous critics, including former U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, slammed the leaked report over WHO's ties to China.
Pomepo called it "a sham continuation of the CCP-WHO disinformation campaign. It’s why I recommended we leave WHO. Dr. Tedros collaborated with Xi to hide human to human transmission at a CRITICAL juncture. WIV remains the most likely source of the virus — and WHO is complicit."
Tedros added that the international team had difficulty accessing raw data during the mission to China, demanding "more timely and comprehensive data sharing" in future.
The origin report was published Tuesday, confirming what researchers said in mid-February at the conclusion of their four-week mission to Wuhan, the central Chinese city where the first Covid cases emerged at the end of 2019, and in subsequent interviews.
The report was released more than a year into the pandemic that has killed nearly 2.8 million people worldwide, with several countries battling new waves of infections.
World leaders called for a new international treaty to better fight future pandemics and for countries to be ready if — or when — another hits.
"Together, we must be better prepared to predict, prevent, detect, assess and effectively respond to pandemics in a highly coordinated fashion," they urged.
The call came in a joint article published in international newspapers on Tuesday, penned by leaders from more than 20 countries — including Germany, France, South Korea and South Africa — along with the European Union and the WHO.
Tedros had earlier urged the world to not waste any time in preparing for the next.
"The time to act is now. The world cannot afford to wait until the pandemic is over to start planning for the next one," the world health body chief told a virtual press conference.
The expert report on the origins of COVID-19 has had a troubled birth, with publication delays adding to the hold-ups and diplomatic wrangling that plagued the WHO's attempts to get experts into Wuhan — the city at the centre of the initial outbreak.
They finally arrived on Jan. 14, more than a year after the first cases surfaced.
Experts believe the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes the COVID-19 disease originally came from bats.
The report authors judged that the most likely scenario was that it had made a direct leap to humans, while not ruling out other theories.
Beijing's theory that the virus did not originate in China at all but was imported in frozen food was judged "possible" but very unlikely.
Claims promoted by former U.S. President Donald Trump's administration that the virus escaped from a research lab were judged "extremely unlikely."
Meanwhile, UN chief Guterres called for more debt relief for the poorest countries struggling with economic fallout from the pandemic.
He urged a "new debt mechanism" allowing such options as debt swaps, buy-backs and cancellations to help worse-off countries.
Addressing an online forum that included dozens of world leaders, he said the pandemic has pushed the world to "the verge of a debt crisis" and required "urgent action".
"We need to change the rules," he argued.
More than a year into the pandemic, several countries are grappling with new waves of the virus, prompting a scramble to contain outbreaks with fresh anti-virus measures.
Italy said Tuesday it would impose a five-day quarantine on travellers arriving from other EU countries, while Germany will beef up checks along land borders to ensure people arriving have negative Covid tests.
Local authorities in German capital Berlin and Munich again suspended injections with the AstraZeneca jab for under-60s over new reports of rare blood clots among recipients, but called it a "precautionary measure".
In France, hospitals were under pressure after partial regional shutdowns failed to keep the number of people in intensive care below its second-wave peak.
And in Slovakia, Prime Minister Igor Matovic resigned over his handling of the pandemic.
On the vaccine front there was some good news Tuesday as the German firm BioNTech said it was on track to manufacture 2.5 billion doses of its COVID-19 vaccine this year with US partner Pfizer, 25 percent more than expected.
Meanwhile in Papua New Guinea a sports centre was converted into a makeshift hospital to cope with surging coronavirus infections in the impoverished nation.
A shortage of nurses and doctors was further straining a system under stress.
"We've got nurses and doctors in tears at the moment, working back-to-back night shift/day shift," Matt Cannon, chief executive of St John Ambulance Papua New Guinea, told AFP.
"The system's under strain," he added. "It's putting them under immense strain."
This report contains material from AFP and Bloomberg News.
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