WHO says COVID-19 origin needs more studies as top expert's lab 'concern' made public for first time

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The World Health Organization’s lead investigator into the coronavirus’ origins in China appears to have contradicted his February statement dismissing the Wuhan lab-leak theory – admitting that it was not “extremely unlikely” as the WHO said at the time, but “probable.”

On Thursday, the WHO in a new statement admitted that the lab-leak was not “extremely unlikely” after all.

“On review of the phase one study report, WHO determined that there was insufficient scientific evidence to rule any of the hypotheses out,” the statement continued. “Specifically, in order to address the ‘lab hypothesis,’ it is important to have access to all data and consider scientific best practice and look at the mechanisms WHO already has in place.”

The WHO said China and other member states have accused the investigation into the coronavirus’ origins of becoming “politicized” and claiming the international organization is caving to political pressure.

Critics have raised concerns about China’s security and safety protocols and have hypothesized that patient zero, the first coronavirus victim, could have been a lab worker who obtained the virus on accident.

“Analyzing and improving lab safety and protocols in all laboratories around the world, including in China, is important for our collective biosafety and security,” the WHO statement reads.

FILE – In this file photo dated Wednesday, Feb. 10, 2021, Peter Ben Embarek of a World Health Organization team speaks to journalists as he arrives at the airport to leave, at the end of their WHO mission to investigate the origins of the coronavirus pandemic in Wuhan in central China’s Hubei province. When WHO traveled to China earlier this year to investigate the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic,  Peter Ben Embarek said he was worried about biosafety standards at a laboratory close to the market where the first human cases were detected, according to a documentary released Thursday Aug. 12, 2021, by TV2, a Danish television channel.   (AP Photo/Ng Han Guan, FILE)

Dr. Peter Ben Embarek, who led the WHO probe in China, told Danish media this past spring that “an employee who was infected in the field by taking samples falls under one of the probable hypotheses.” But the remarks just aired Thursday on the Danish network TV2 in a new documentary.

“In that case, it would then be a laboratory worker instead of a random villager or other person who has regular contact with bats,” he told the interviewer. “So it is actually in the probable category.”

In a statement Thursday, the WHO confirmed Ben Embarek was “accurately quoted” in the Danish interview, which took place this spring.

However, his team said in February, in a highly anticipated report on the origins of COVID-19, that the lab-leak theory was unlikely.er

“The findings suggest that the laboratory incidents hypothesis is extremely unlikely to explain the introduction of the virus to the human population,” he said at the time.

China has rejected the leak theory from the start and has been accused of withholding or destroying evidence, and the Trump administration had accused the WHO of cowering to pressure from Beijing.

The Danish documentary also revealed Ben Embarek had spoken about different conclusions in a conference call as early as January.

Workers at the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s Wuhan branch were performing lab work on coronaviruses “without potentially having the same level of expertise or safety or who knows.” The Wuhan Institute of Virology has been eyed as a potential source of the virus, but the Chinese CDC also has a lab in Wuhan.

“What is more concerning to me is the other lab,” Ben Embarek says in the documentary, according to an Associated Press translation. “The one that is next to the market.”

The Chinese CDC lab is also in Wuhan, and just 500 yards away from the Huanan market where many early cases of the virus were reported.

However, after more than a year of downplaying the possibility that the virus had leaked out of Wuhan’s Institute of Virology, whether on accident or on purpose, the idea has only recently gained credibility.

President Biden ordered a review of U.S. intelligence on the matter earlier this year, as well as a new investigation independent of the WHO.

The lab-leak theory was largely discounted last year – but then a bombshell Wall Street Journal report in May revealed three Wuhan researchers were hospitalized with COVID-19 symptoms well before the pandemic began.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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