The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion How did the pandemic begin? It’s time for a new WHO investigation.

THE PANDEMIC is a global health calamity, with 3.1 million people dead in little more than a year. Yet almost nothing is known about how it began, and the first attempt to discover the origins went nowhere. In the next few weeks, the World Health Organization and member nations must rally anew to launch a credible investigation into how and where the pandemic got started.

No one should underestimate the difficulty — it might take years. But understanding the origins of this pandemic will help immensely in preparing for another one.

The recent joint WHO-China investigation found the most likely source of the coronavirus was a direct or indirect zoonotic spillover to humans. However, the mission reported that more than 80,000 wildlife, livestock and poultry samples were collected from across China’s provinces, and none tested positive for the virus before or after the outbreak. The investigating team said the least likely pathway was an inadvertent leak from a laboratory in Wuhan, where the outbreak first exploded. The leak hypothesis was not investigated, although it is known that the Wuhan Institute of Virology was carrying out risky “gain of function” experiments on bat coronaviruses, which involve modifying viral genomes to give them new properties, including the ability to infect lung cells of laboratory mice that had been genetically changed to respond as human respiratory cells would.

China has strenuously denied that a leak came from the lab, calling it a “farce,” and pointing instead to frozen food packaging from abroad. Whether China likes it or not, a serious investigation must encompass zoonotic spillover, the possibility of a laboratory leak and any other possibility backed by evidence.

A group of scientists, in an open letter released Friday, correctly called for a “full scientific and forensic investigation into all possible origins” of the virus, and provided a set of unanswered questions about the laboratory and its work. Some of them concern the mystery of a sickness that overtook six men in Mojiang, Yunnan province, in 2012. Three of them died after clearing bat guano in an abandoned mine. “To this day all the coronaviruses most closely related to SARS-CoV-2 come from that Mojiang mine,” the scientists say, yet the Wuhan institute, which collected samples, has cloaked its research in obfuscation and secrecy. The Wall Street Journal reported Tuesday that the United States and other nations are writing recommendations to the WHO for a broad phase-two investigation.

The WHO director-general, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, has declared that a second investigative phase is necessary, and that no theory is off the table. The WHO is a member-based United Nations organization, and it lacks unilateral regulatory powers. Yet a credible phase-two investigation could not be more important. The WHO member states, meeting in late May as the World Health Assembly, must insist on the launch of a far-reaching inquiry with the proper staff and a wide-ranging mandate to go wherever the evidence leads. The virus origins may be hard to locate, but it should not be for lack of trying.

Read more:

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

Josh Rogin: The WHO covid report is fatally flawed, and a real investigation has yet to take place

The Post’s View: Where did the pandemic begin? China holds the key.

Madhukar Pai and Manu Prakash: India’s covid-19 crisis is a dire warning for all countries

The Post’s View: The WHO needs to start over in investigating the origins of the coronavirus

Coronavirus: What you need to know

End of the public health emergency: The Biden administration ended the public health emergency for the coronavirus pandemic on May 11, just days after WHO said it would no longer classify the coronavirus pandemic as a public health emergency. Here’s what the end of the covid public health emergency means for you.

Tracking covid cases, deaths: Covid-19 was the fourth leading cause of death in the United States last year with covid deaths dropping 47 percent between 2021 and 2022. See the latest covid numbers in the U.S. and across the world.

The latest on coronavirus boosters: The FDA cleared the way for people who are at least 65 or immune-compromised to receive a second updated booster shot for the coronavirus. Here’s who should get the second covid booster and when.

New covid variant: A new coronavirus subvariant, XBB. 1.16, has been designated as a “variant under monitoring” by the World Health Organization. The latest omicron offshoot is particularly prevalent in India. Here’s what you need to know about Arcturus.

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