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Opinion Did covid-19 escape from a Wuhan lab? The WHO report can’t be the final word.

A security official moves journalists away from the Wuhan Institute of Virology after a World Health Organization team arrived for a field visit in Wuhan, China, Feb. 3. (Ng Han Guan/AP)
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David Feith, an adjunct senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, is a former deputy assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs.

The World Health Organization’s final report on its investigation into covid-19’s origin is due any day now. But a major revelation has already emerged: This month, two members of the WHO investigative team acknowledged that lab workers at the Wuhan Institute of Virology in China were sick — from what, it is not yet clear — in fall 2019, before the public coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan.

That information confirms an assertion in a Jan. 15 statement by the State Department (where I worked at the time), and it represents the sort of fact pattern that investigators would expect if covid originated with an accidental lab leak, one of several possible but unproven theories.

So will the final WHO report focus on the Wuhan Institute of Virology? Don’t count on it. Because the same WHO investigators who — responding to media inquiries — confirmed the existence of the sick lab workers immediately played down the importance of the information.

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“It was flu season!” WHO investigator Peter Daszak said on Twitter, though he provided no evidence that these lab workers had flu rather than covid. Fellow investigator Marion Koopmans told NBC News that the lab researchers’ illnesses were “normal” and “there was nothing that stood out. … We’ve really not seen any evidence of [a] credible lab-associated case,” adding that China’s government said the lab workers tested negative for covid antibodies in March and April last year. In other words, nothing to see here — because the Chinese Communist Party told us so.

No government, no public health official, no one affected by covid should accept such unserious explanations. For one thing, why is this information emerging only now, more than a year after the public outbreak? When the State Department released its information about the sick lab workers in January, the Chinese government angrily dismissed and condemned the U.S. statement.

These sick lab researchers may be the best lead yet into who or what might have been “Patient Zero.” There is no animal anywhere — no bat, no pangolin, no fanciful imported frozen food — that has been identified as a comparably likely source of the outbreak.

Perhaps the WHO final report will supply evidence to justify the investigators’ apparent lack of interest in pursuing the lab-leak theory. Does the WHO have the names of the lab researchers who fell ill? Were they interviewed? Has the WHO seen their medical records? Antibody test results? If so, will the information be included in the WHO report?

Koopmans, by the way, has been associated with and now oversees a Dutch lab that in 2011 caused an international uproar over risky “gain of function” virology experiments that made a deadly influenza virus more transmissible among ferrets and possibly therefore among humans. (Ferrets and humans have similar respiratory biology.) This led scientists and governments worldwide, including the Obama administration, to favor limits on lab experiments involving potential pandemic pathogens, as they are called.

This is precisely the sort of risky work that the Wuhan Institute of Virology specialized in — carried out in the very labs where researchers fell sick in fall 2019. If the Wuhan institute were found to be the source of covid, it could threaten the credibility and funding of virology labs such as Koopmans’s.

Daszak also has a potential conflict of interest: As The Post has reported, he has enjoyed a cooperative-funding relationship with the Wuhan Institute of Virology through his New York-based organization EcoHealth Alliance, which funded research in Wuhan through multimillion-dollar grants from the U.S. National Institutes of Health.

How could such an important investigation risk its credibility by including possibly conflicted investigators? Well, the WHO investigation isn’t just a WHO investigation. It is a joint effort between the WHO, which convened some 19 international investigators, and the Chinese government, which selected 17 Chinese researchers and also had veto power over the foreign experts. The investigators won’t be able to publish findings without official Chinese concurrence.

All of which may help explain why a coalition of scientists, known as the Paris Group, recently released an open letter asking for a new, credible investigation into covid’s origin. The Biden administration, which has repeatedly called for greater transparency from China, could further the cause of transparency by releasing additional information the U.S. government has about the sick Wuhan lab workers. (A senior Biden State Department official told The Post, “No one is disputing the information” in the previous administration’s Jan. 15 statement.)

Getting to the bottom of covid’s origin is essential for understanding this pandemic and stopping the next one. The World Health Organization, independent investigators and governments around the world have a duty to chase down every promising lead in the effort to solve the most important mystery of our time — and to serve the cause of global public health.

Read more:

Josh Rogin: The Biden administration confirms some but not all of Trump’s Wuhan lab claims

Josh Rogin: How covid hastened the decline and fall of the U.S.-China relationship

The Post’s View: The WHO investigation into the coronavirus origin must be free of China’s meddling

The Post’s View: The U.S. should reveal its intelligence about the Wuhan laboratory

The Post’s View: We’re still missing the origin story of this pandemic. China is sitting on the answers.

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