Third of Team Appointed by WHO to Investigate Origins of Covid Have Conflicts of Interest

The World Health Organisation is embroiled in a new scandal: at least a third of its team investigating the origins of COVID-19, appointed last week, have conflicts of interest due to research links or previous statements about the disease. Ian Birrell in the Mail on Sunday has more.

The team of 26 scientists, selected from 700 applicants, were named last week after the UN body had its initial efforts frustrated by China and was then widely criticised after they declared it “extremely unlikely” that the pandemic began with a laboratory leak.

Michael Ryan, a senior WHO official, said the new Scientific Advisory Group on the Origins of Novel Pathogens (Sago) had possibly the last chance to discover the origins of Covid-19 “in a collegiate, collective and mutually responsible way”.

Yet there is growing dismay over the inclusion of seven members of the discredited previous group, whose findings echoed the Beijing regime’s line – alongside others who have dismissed fears of a lab incident as conspiracy theory.

Tory MP Bob Seely, of the Foreign Affairs Committee, said: “Why does the new team include people who are compromised? Two whitewashes are not better than one. The world is owed a robust independent inquiry.”

The seven members of the previous study group include British professor John Watson and Dutch scientist Marion Koopmans.

Koopmans runs a viroscience department collaborating with EcoHealth Alliance, the US organisation headed by British scientist Peter Daszak, which funded high-risk bat-virus experiments in Wuhan.

She has published 27 papers with her colleague Ron Fouchier, one of the world’s most controversial researchers into ‘gain of function’ experiments, which aim to make animal viruses more transmissible and able to infect humans.

New members of the WHO team include German virologist Christian Drosten, who signed an influential Lancet statement last year that attacked “conspiracy theories suggesting that COVID-19 does not have a natural origin” and praised Beijing’s “rapid, open and transparent sharing of data”.

One of the two biosafety specialists is Kathrin Summermatter, a Swiss scientist who has praised the security of Chinese labs and said the idea of a research incident is “a classic conspiracy theory”.

Filippa Lentzos, a biosecurity expert at King’s College London, has insisted that it is vital to keep all theories open, and said: “There appear to be many in the group who do not have an open mind – an essential quality in any scientific investigative team.”

You can read the story in the Mail on Sunday here.

Schools Across Europe Must Stay Open, Says WHO

The World Health Organisation and Unicef have said schools in Europe must do everything possible to remain open, in spite of the Delta variant being dominant in the region. The Guardian has more.

“The pandemic has caused the most catastrophic disruption to education in history,” said Hans Kluge, the head of the WHO’s Europe region. “It is vital that classroom-based learning continues uninterrupted.”

Kluge said that while the pandemic continued, “educating children safely in a physical school setting” was of “paramount importance for their education, mental health and social skills”, and must become “a primary objective” for governments.

44 out of 53 countries in the WHO’s Europe region closed their schools nationwide at the height of the pandemic’s first wave in April 2020, and while most reopened that September, surging infection rates sparked new restrictions and more closures in dozens of countries during the autumn and winter.

Mass absences and frequent school closures have continued in several countries through the spring and early summer, with more than one million children, or 14.3% of the age group, out of school for Covid-related reasons – either self-isolating or because their school was closed – in England in late July.

“We encourage all countries to keep schools open, and urge all schools to put in place measures to minimise the risk of COVID-19 and the spread of variants” throughout the new school year, Kluge said in a joint statement with the Deputy Regional Director of the U.N. Children’s Fund for Europe and Central Asia, Philippe Cori.

Worth reading in full.

This is a positive development, save for the fact that Kluge and Cori recommend frequent testing of pupils and staff as a way of keeping schools ‘safe’ without explaining how to avoid pupils who test positive and those in their ‘bubbles’ being sent home for 10 days at a time.

Mask-Wearing and Social Distancing Rules Should Stay in Place Due to Covid Variants, Says WHO Official

Mask-wearing and social distancing should become part of “the life to come”, says a Special Envoy on Covid for the World Health Organisation (WHO). Dr David Nabarro told Sky News that restrictive measures should stay in place because it is “inevitable” that new Covid variants will be able to “break through the vaccine-related protection in a few people”.

Sky News has more.

[Dr Nabarro’s comments come] as India said on Tuesday that the new “Delta plus” variant recently discovered in the country is of concern and that nearly two dozen cases had been detected in three states.

Speaking to Sky News, Dr Nabarro said the “issue of variants is what we are watching all over the world” and they “are going to go on coming”.

“We will go from Delta to Lambda and then on to the other Greek letters, that’s inevitable, and some of these variants will be troublesome,” he said.

“They will be able to break through the vaccine-related protection in a few people and that will cause problems.”

He added: “I’m basically saying variants are going to go on coming. That’s part of life, we need to pick them up fast, we need to move quickly if we see them in a certain location, we need to build the management of variants into what we call our Covid-ready strategy, which is going to be the pattern for the foreseeable future.”

Due to new strains, Mr Nabarro suggested that mask-wearing and keeping apart would still be necessary for areas of high infection.

He said there was a need to “maintain defences against the virus to stop it welling up more and more, and that’s going to be the life to come, at least until there’s enough vaccine, and enough certainty, to be sure that vaccination will protect us. Right now we can’t say that.”

Dr Nabarro said we will have to continue social distancing as well as using vaccines “as part of our defence” against Covid, particularly in virus hotspots.

Reports this morning suggest that guidelines on face masks and distancing could be dropped on July 19th because of the slowdown in Covid infections. Earlier this month, however, a top Government adviser and long-time member of the Communist Party of Britain said they should stay in place “forever”, not only for Covid but also “to reduce other [diseases]”.

The Sky News report is worth reading in full.

WHO Chief Says Lab Leak Theory Remains “Open” as G7 Leaders Discuss Covid Origins

G7 leaders discussed the origins of Covid on Saturday as the Chief of the World Health Organisation (WHO) said that all hypotheses – including the lab leak theory – remain “open”. Sky News has the story.

At their summit in Cornwall on Saturday, G7 leaders were joined by Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the WHO’s Director General, during their talks on the Covid crisis and efforts to avoid future pandemics.

The WHO Chief set the world’s leading democracies the challenge of vaccinating 70% of the global population against Covid by the time of the G7’s next summit in Germany next year.

And, speaking to reporters at a briefing after the leaders’ discussions, Dr Tedros confirmed the subject of the Covid outbreak was raised at the Cornwall summit.

Last month, U.S. President Joe Biden ordered intelligence officials to “redouble” efforts to investigate the origins of the coronavirus pandemic, including the theory that it came from a laboratory in China.

Referring to the millions around the world who have died due to Covid, Dr Tedros said: “This is very tragic and I think the respect these people deserve is knowing what the origin of this virus is, so we can prevent it from happening again.”

Dr Tedros confirmed the WHO was preparing for the second phase of its investigation into the origins of Covid, which he said would need “transparency” and the “cooperation” of China.

“We believe that all hypotheses should be open and we need to proceed with the second phase to really know the origins,” he said.

Worth reading in full.

Covid Lab-Leak Theory Must Be Properly Investigated “If We Are to Avoid Another Pandemic”, Says Matt Ridley

Last year, Matt Ridley – along with “everybody sensible” – believed the idea that the pandemic leaked from a lab was “pseudoscientific nonsense almost on a par with UFOs and the Loch Ness monster”. Now, writing in the latest issue of the Spectator, he says that, “if we are to avoid another pandemic”, the theory – which is looking increasingly plausible – should be taken more seriously and be properly investigated.

The turning point, ironically, was the “press conference” on February 9th in Wuhan where a team of western scientists representing the World Health Organisation (WHO) sat meekly through a three-hour propaganda session at the end of a 12-day study tour. Strictly chaperoned throughout, the western scientists (approved by the Chinese Government) had mainly listened to presentations by their Chinese colleagues during their visit and done no research themselves. Yet the result was presented to the world as if it was the WHO’s conclusion. 

The press conference was told that the lab leak theory was “extremely unlikely” and would not be investigated further, because the scientists at the Wuhan Institute of Virology said so during a three-hour visit by the study team. By contrast, the theory favoured by the Chinese Government – that the virus reached Wuhan on frozen meat from a rabbit or ferret-badger farm in southern China or southeast Asia – was said to be plausible, despite a total lack of evidence. 

So risible was this little stage play that even WHO’s Director-General, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, had to backtrack a few days later: “All hypotheses remain open and require further study.” Dr Peter Ben Embarek, who led the study team, added wishfully: “I don’t think the press conference was a PR win for China.” The governments of Britain, America and 12 other countries issued a joint statement expressing “shared concerns” over the study…

The problem is partly that journalists confused two different theories last year: that the virus might have escaped from a laboratory openly doing research that was intended to prevent a pandemic, or that a secret project to create a nasty virus for use as a bioweapon had either gone wrong or succeeded all too well. The latter theory remains implausible; the former has never been so…

The lab that has been assiduously and energetically collecting coronaviruses from horseshoe bats for more than a decade, gathering a far larger collection of samples and genetic sequences than any other lab anywhere in the world, just happens to be in Wuhan, as part of the Wuhan Institute of Virology. Run by Dr Shi Zhengli, it boasted in 2019 of having at least 100 different Sars-like viruses in its database.

We cannot check these samples because the database went offline on September 12th, 2019, just before the pandemic began, and Dr Shi persistently refuses to reopen it, arguing that it’s been subject to “hacking attempts”. Right… in September 2019? And there’s no other way to show the data? Dr Daszak says he knows what is in the database and that it is of no relevance, which is why he has not asked his friend Dr Shi to share it. Right. When I raised this lack of transparency with a senior British scientist, he said: ‘They are communists, what do you expect?’ It is not clear why that should be reassuring.

Matt highlights the letter recently published in the academic journal Science, in which 18 scientists from around the world criticise the WHO over its failure to properly investigate the lab leak theory, and say: “Theories of accidental release from a lab and zoonotic spillover [from animals to humans] both remain viable.”

His article is worth reading in full.

Stop Press: Conservative MP Bob Seely has told MailOnline that Facebook’s censoring of posts debating whether Covid could be man-made is “contemptible”.

I think it is absolutely contemptible and it shows their commitment to democracy is an incredibly thin veneer over their commercial interests. So many big tech firms are showing their true and frankly really ugly colours…

This is not a conspiracy theory. There is a genuine debate about where the Wuhan virus came from.

For Facebook to be shutting that conversation down is absolutely appalling.

Also worth reading in full.

Scientists Criticise WHO over Its Failure to Properly Investigate Covid Lab Leak Theory

Scientists from around the world have criticised the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) investigation into the origins of Covid, saying that the agency has not properly looked into the lab leak theory. The group wrote in a letter to the academic journal Science: “Theories of accidental release from a lab and zoonotic spillover [from animals to humans] both remain viable.” Ian Birrell has more in the Mail on Sunday.

In a highly significant move, 18 scientists from the world’s top universities, including Cambridge, Harvard and Yale, have demanded further investigations into the origins of the pandemic…

[They wrote:] “More investigation is needed to determine the origin of the pandemic. Knowing how Covid emerged is critical for informing global strategies to mitigate the risk of future outbreaks.”

The signatories include Ravindra Gupta, the Cambridge Geneticist who has played a key role in Britain’s response to variants. 

Another is Ralph Baric, a U.S. epidemiologist who carried out controversial experiments on coronaviruses which included collaborating with Shi Zhengli – the Wuhan scientist nicknamed “Batwoman”.

Their research manipulated bat viruses to make them more infectious to human beings.

Although the work by Baric and Zhengli was funded through the EcoHealth Alliance charity, leaked emails revealed that Baric declined to join the charity’s British Director Peter Daszak in efforts to dismiss suggestions of a possible lab leak.

When the pandemic erupted, Daszak secretly organised a statement with some fellow scientists to the Lancet which “strongly condemned” conspiracy theories suggesting that Covid did not have a natural origin. 

U.S. funding for the Wuhan Institute of Virology was halted after it was reported by the Mail on Sunday

Yet Daszak was asked to join a WHO joint study team into the pandemic origins, despite his clear conflicts of interest.

The new letter to Science criticises the WHO inquiry for claiming a laboratory leak was “extremely unlikely” when there is no strong evidence to support either theory. 

“We must take hypotheses about both natural and laboratory spillovers seriously until we have sufficient data,” it said.

“A proper investigation should be transparent, objective, data-driven, inclusive of broad expertise, subject to independent oversight, and responsibly managed to minimise the impact of conflicts of interest.”

The criticism demonstrates how the ground is shifting fast on the issue as scientists and politicians challenge the conventional wisdom that Covid emerged naturally in Wuhan, the site of several key Chinese laboratories.

These labs include the Wuhan Institute of Virology, which specialises in the study of bat-borne viruses and where there are known safety concerns…

Only a few scientists and journalists dared challenge the narrative that dismissed the idea of a possible lab leak for the first year of the pandemic…

The argument began to shift when Stanford Microbiologist David Relman, another of the Science signatories, published a landmark paper demanding a serious investigation of both theories.

Worth reading in full.

Europe’s Vaccine Rollout “Unacceptably Slow”, Says WHO

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has criticised Europe’s Covid vaccine rollout for being “unacceptably slow”. Only 16% of the EU’s population has received the jab, compared with 52% in the UK. BBC News has the story.

The WHO has criticised the rollout of coronavirus vaccines in Europe as being “unacceptably slow”. 

It also says the situation in the region is more worrying than it has been for several months. 

Vaccination campaigns in much of Europe have been hit by delays and the number of infections is rising.

The EU has been criticised for the pace of its vaccination programme – only 16% of its population has received the jab, compared with 52% in the UK.

But the EU says the UK has had an unfair advantage in contracts it signed with vaccine manufacturers, some of whom are based within the EU.

Last month, Boris Johnson said that the success of the UK’s Covid vaccine programme was because of “capitalism” and “greed”. Concerns on the Continent over the AstraZeneca vaccine’s link to rare blood clots are also thought to have slowed the progress of its jab rollout. A recent survey of 1,053 Danes suggests that, regardless of official assurances that the jab is “safe and effective“, concerns about the vaccine are now widespread in Denmark. Reuters has more.

One in three Danes would decline to get a Covid shot using AstraZeneca’s vaccine, local media outlets TV 2 and Politiken reported late on Wednesday, citing a recent survey. …

The survey, conducted by Megafon among 1,053 persons, showed 33% of Danes would decline to get a shot with AstraZeneca’s vaccine. However, only 7% would decline regardless of which Covid vaccine they were offered.

The WHO’s director for Europe Hans Kluge says that Europe must speed up its vaccine rollout as vaccination “present[s] our best way out of this pandemic”.

We must speed up the process by ramping up manufacturing, reducing barriers to administering vaccines, and using every single vial we have in stock, now.

Worth reading in full.

WHO Distances Itself From its Own ‘Whitewash’ Report Dismissing Covid Lab Leak Theory

No sooner had the World Health Organisation (WHO) yesterday published its report into the origins of the Wuhan coronavirus, than the Director General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus was making a public statement distancing the organisation from what observers are calling a “whitewash”.

The report, which had been conducted with heavy reliance on Chinese scientists and under pressure from Chinese authorities, concluded it was “extremely unlikely” that SARS-CoV-2 had escaped from a lab, claiming instead it was most likely the novel virus had passed from bats via an “intermediate animal host” before sparking an “explosive outbreak” in Wuhan in December 2019.

With a rare and welcome criticism of the Chinese Government, Dr Ghebreyesus said: “I expect future collaborative studies to include more timely and comprehensive data sharing” and insisted that “all hypotheses remain on the table”.

The United States, the UK and 12 other countries (Australia, Canada, Czechia, Denmark, Estonia, Israel, Japan, Latvia, Lithuania, Norway, South Korea and Slovenia) issued a joint statement echoing the Director General’s concerns: “It is equally essential that we voice our shared concerns that the international expert study on the source of the SARS-CoV-2 virus was significantly delayed and lacked access to complete, original data and samples.”

The European Union, more meekly, said that it regretted the delays and the “limited availability of early samples and related data”.

Dr Peter Ben-Embarek, head of the WHO mission at the centre of the controversy, defended his report, saying the “zoonotic origins” of the pandemic had been the agreed remit of the investigation rather than a potential laboratory accident. A defence which rather begs the question as to why the investigation was disbarred by design from looking into one of the key possibilities.

Dr Ben-Embarek, for reasons best known to himself, felt moved to offer a rather feeble defence of the Chinese Government’s lack of cooperation.

Of course there are areas where we had difficulties in getting down to the raw data, and there are many good reasons for that. In China, like in many other countries, there are restrictions on privacy laws that forbid the sharing of data, including private details to outsiders in particular. Where we did not have full access to the overall data, this has been put as a recommendation for future studies. So the idea is that, because we didn’t have time or because certain authorisation needs to be given before we could get access to the data, all that could be done in the second phase of studies.

Science journalist Matt Ridley aptly called it a “pure whitewash” when he appeared yesterday morning on Julia Hartley-Brewer’s show on talkRADIO. He pointed out that although the report concludes it’s very likely that an animal carried the virus to Wuhan, this conclusion is at odds with the 20-30 pages in the report which note that 45,000 animals in China have been tested for the virus and none have been found with it.

Is There a Third Wave in Europe?

Europe shared in the worldwide fall-off in coronavirus infections in January and February but, unlike in the UK, that trend has reversed in the past few weeks and the continent, especially in the east, is beginning to see sharp rises again.

The World Health Organisation’s Emergencies Lead in Europe, Dr Catherine Smallwood, has said she is “particularly worried” about the situation in the Balkans, the Baltic States and Central Europe, where hospitalisation and death rates are now among the highest in the world. The Telegraph has more.

The numbers of new cases per million people are also rising so fast that in some countries – notably Estonia, Bosnia, Hungary and Poland – the graphs tracking the virus point almost vertically upwards. 

Experts said that the combination of the spread of the more transmissible UK variant coupled with slow Government reactions, as well as a lack of vaccinations in some countries, could all be contributing to the spiking numbers and Europe’s looming third wave. 

The jury is still out on how much more transmissible the UK variant really is. As Dr Clare Craig notes in relation to the UK: “The ONS Survey had it falling before Lockdown 3 was announced. At peak cases ONS reckoned 61% of COVID cases in England were new variant, 33% in Northern Ireland, 22% in Scotland and only 5% in Wales – yet all had a winter wave.” The assumption that “slow Government reactions” make a difference is also not in line with the findings of most studies, which find no association between restrictions and spread.

The WHO said that the situation was “most acute” in areas that had been successful “in controlling the disease [sic] in the first six months of 2020”, suggesting for many of the countries this is more an extended first wave than a second or third.

Nonetheless, it looks like the region may be in for a rough ride over the next few weeks.

Positive rates from Our World in Data