'Premature' to rule out Covid lab leak, says WHO chief

15 July 2021, 23:50 | Updated: 15 July 2021, 23:53

Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of the WHO, said ruling out the lab leak theory was "premature" and said he was asking for China to be more co-operative
Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of the WHO, said ruling out the lab leak theory was "premature" and said he was asking for China to be more transparent. Picture: Alamy

By Daisy Stephens

The head of the World Health Organisation (WHO) has said that laboratory leaks "do happen" and that it was premature to rule one out as as a cause of the Covid-19 pandemic.

WHO director-general Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told reporters there had been a "premature push" to rule out the theory that the virus might have escaped from a Chinese government laboratory in Wuhan - undermining WHO's own March report, which concluded that a laboratory leak was "extremely unlikely".

"I was a lab technician myself, I'm an immunologist, and I have worked in the lab, and lab accidents happen," Dr Tedros said. "It's common."

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He also said the health agency was asking China “to be transparent, open and co-operate" as scientists search for the origins of the coronavirus.

In a rare departure from his usual deference to powerful member countries, Dr Tedros said getting access to the raw data had been a challenge for the international team that travelled to China earlier this year to investigate the source of Covid-19.

The first human cases of Covid-19 were identified in the Chinese city of Wuhan.

In recent months, the idea that the pandemic started somehow in a laboratory there - and perhaps involved an engineered virus - has gained traction, especially with US President Joe Biden ordering a review of American intelligence to assess the possibility in May.

China has struck back aggressively, arguing that attempts to link the origins of Covid-19 to a lab were politically motivated and suggesting that the virus might have started abroad.

At WHO's annual meeting of health ministers in the spring, China said that the future search for Covid-19's origins should continue - in other countries.

Most scientists suspect that the coronavirus originated in bats, but the exact route by which it first jumped into people - via an intermediary animal or in some other way - has not yet been determined.

It typically takes decades to narrow down the natural source of an animal virus like Ebola or Sars.

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Dr Tedros said that "checking what happened, especially in our labs, is important" to nail down if the pandemic had any laboratory links.

"We need information, direct information on what the situation of this lab was before and at the start of the pandemic," the WHO chief said, adding that China's co-operation was critical.

"If we get full information, we can exclude (the lab connection)."

Throughout the pandemic, Dr Tedros has repeatedly praised China for its speed and transparency despite senior WHO officials internally griping about a lack of clarity from their Chinese counterparts.