Irish Examiner view: The World Health Organization's mission impossible

WHO not investigating possibility that the coronavirus could have originated in a Chinese lab where scientists have studied coronaviruses for years
Irish Examiner view: The World Health Organization's mission impossible
Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director general of the World Health Organization, says the worst is yet to come in the Covid-19 pandemic. Picture: AP

Does the World Health Organization (WHO) have a death wish? It seems so, considering it has sent a fact-finding mission to China without investigating the prospect the coronavirus could have originated not in a food market in the city of Wuhan as Bejing asserts, but in a nearby laboratory where scientists have been studying coronaviruses for years.

With 10m known cases of infection and more than half a million deaths, the coronavirus continues to confound the world’s epidemiologists. Six months after China confirmed its existence, scientists are none the wiser about the precise place or time of the origin of the coronavirus which is key to fighting it more effectively. The urgency attached to acquiring this knowledge remains heightened since WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus says the worst is yet to come.

Doubt has been cast on the link to a fresh food market in Wuhan because of the lack of clear evidence of it as the sole source of the virus. A cluster of infections late last year focused initial attention on the market where live animals were sold, but the discovery of cases that arose earlier suggests the animal-to-human jump may have happened elsewhere. Questions remain about the activities of the Wuhan Institute of Virology, a renowned centre of coronavirus expertises, after reports emerged that Chinese scientists found an almost identical coronavirus strain in bats and sent it to the lab for examination. One of its research teams, led by Professor Shi Zhengli, has been researching bat coronaviruses since 2004.

According to Richard Ebright, a molecular biologist at Rutgers University in New Jersey: “An inquiry that presupposes — without evidence — that the virus entered humans through a natural zoonotic spillover and that fails to address the alternative possibility that the virus entered humans through a laboratory accident, will have no credibility.”

It is hard to argue with that as a full understanding of the coronavirus is essential to combat it. The latest WHO investigative mission to China could mark a turning point in the search for answers but only if the investigators ask the right questions. They can only do that if they have full access, something that Bejing remains reluctant to give. By refusing to insist — loudly and repeatedly — on full access, the WHO gives ammunition not just to Donald Trump but to dark and sinister forces bent on its destruction.

One of the powerful forces aligned against the WHO is a far-right American advocacy group known as the Gatestone Institute that has up to now saved most of its vitriol for Muslims, warning of a looming “jihadist takeover” of Europe. From 2013 until 2018, it was led by John Bolton, Donald Trump’s national security adviser, until he fell out of favour with the president and then angered him further by publishing a book on the inner workings of his administration.

The WHO is not beyond criticism. It has made mistakes in its handling of the pandemic but, despite its title, it is really a club of independent nations and is only as good as its members can make it. There needs to be a good, hard look at its handling of the crisis but the time to do that is after the pandemic has been dealt with, not in the middle of it.

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