WHO "deeply frustrated" by lack of US transparency on COVID origin data

Mar 2023

While the World Health Organization says it's continuing to urge China to share data and cooperate with investigations into the origins of SARS-CoV-2, the United Nations' health agency is calling out another country for lack of transparency--the United States.

WHO officials on Friday said that the US has not shared reports or data from federal agencies that have assessed how the COVID-19 pandemic began. That includes the latest report by the Department of Energy, which determined with "low confidence" that the pandemic likely began due to a laboratory accident.

Further Reading

The DOE's "low confidence" conclusion has renewed a fiery partisan debate in the US over the pandemic's origins, with Republican lawmakers pouncing on the opportunity to start new congressional probes and criticize the WHO and China.

This week, Republican Sens. Marsha Blackburn (Tenn.) and Ron Johnson (Wis.) used the DOE's unreleased report as a justification to impose new transparency rules on the WHO. "The recent news about the lab leak theory only underscores the extent to which Communist China influences the World Health Organization," Blackburn wrote on Twitter Wednesday.

Meanwhile, Sen. Roger Marshall (R-Kan.), who has argued in favor of the "lab leak" hypothesis, told The Washington Post the assessment "gives us momentum to expose the true origins of COVID. ... As a physician myself, a biochemistry major, I think that there's just no way this virus could have come from nature. It's just too perfect."

Unsettled science

The US intelligence community has unanimously agreed that SARS-CoV-2 was not developed as a biological weapon, and most agencies have also concluded that the virus was likely not genetically engineered, contradicting Marshall's suggestion. Virologists and genetics experts also largely agree that SARS-CoV-2 was not genetically engineered.

The DOE's "low confidence" assessment also doesn't lend the investigations the "momentum" that some lawmakers seem to suggest. The US intelligence community's standards for confidence in assessments, laid out in the 2007 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE 2007) Iran: Nuclear Intentions and Capabilities, explained that a "low confidence" assessment:

generally means that the information's credibility and/or plausibility is questionable, or that the information is too fragmented or poorly corroborated to make solid analytic inferences, or that we have significant concerns or problems with the sources.

Even if such an assessment was weightier, the DOE's lean toward the lab leak hypothesis is still a minority view within the US intelligence community. Of nine intelligence community entities that have reviewed SARS-CoV-2 origin data, only two--the DOE and the FBI--have tilted toward a lab leak. Five favor the hypothesis of a natural "spillover" event from wild animals (four agencies and the National Intelligence Council), while the remaining two entities say there is not enough data to sway opinions toward either hypothesis.

Virologists and infectious disease experts, meanwhile, continue to note that the limited available data so far supports the spillover hypothesis, albeit not conclusively. Two studies published side by side last summer in the journal Science suggested that two lineages of SARS-CoV-2 jumped to humans on two separate occasions at the start of the pandemic in Wuhan and that most cases centered around an area of a Wuhan market with high concentrations of SARS-CoV-2-positive environmental samples and wild animals, many of which can be infected with SARS-CoV-2.

But, without knowing what data the DOE and FBI used for their low-confidence inclinations toward a lab-based origin, researchers and WHO officials are unsure how the assessments fit in with the publicly available scientific information collected so far.