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WHO report says COVID originated in bats, but critics claim the study was biased

The PBS NewsHour has obtained a study by a group of independent researchers convened by the WHO to find the origins of COVID-19 in China. As Nick Schifrin reports, the virus that caused the worst pandemic in a century most likely started in bats, and jumped to humans through an intermediate animal host. The researchers call it a starting point, but their critics still say it doesn’t go far enough.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Today, the "PBS NewsHour" obtained a joint study by a group of independent researchers working with China and convened by the World Health Organization about the origins of COVID-19.

    As Nick Schifrin reports, the researchers call it a starting point, and their critics say it doesn't go far enough.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    The virus that caused the worst pandemic in a century most likely started in bats and jumped to humans through an intermediate animal host, possibly a mink, raccoon dog, or a civet, among others, according to the WHO-convened joint study obtained by "PBS NewsHour."

  • Dr. Peter Daszak:

    Prior to the mission on the ground in China, there was a real missing link in this trying to understand where COVID came from.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Peter Daszak is a member of the WHO team that spent four weeks in Wuhan, half under quarantine, for what the team calls a joint study with the Chinese into COVID's origins. They found that, while Wuhan is a modern metropolis, until last year, its downtown markets still practiced an old Chinese tradition of selling wildlife that residents ate.

    That provides a pathway from the location of many of these animals in Southern China to Wuhan hundreds of miles north.

  • Peter Daszak:

    The evidence for that pathway is that the market in Wuhan, the Huanan seafood market, was selling live animals and frozen mammals. And so there's a pathway there. There are animals that we know can carry coronaviruses in the market.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    The team concluded the second most likely origin was direct transmission from a bat to a human. Infected frozen seafood was less likely, but still possible, and a lab leak extremely unlikely.

  • Peter Daszak:

    There's no evidence that the viruses that that lab was working with or even the genetic sequences were the progenitor, the ancestor of SARS-CoV-2, that, when you visit the lab, when you talk to the management, it is an efficiently run lab. They do audits, safety checks.

  • Dr. David Relman:

    I would call it somewhat superficial, skewed and incomplete.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    David Relman is a medicine and microbiology professor at Stanford. He says the report relies too much on summary judgments by Chinese scientists.

  • David Relman:

    As a scientist, the thing we value the most and the thing upon which we most rely are data. And when I look at this report, I'm struck by the fact that there are very few primary data, original data, on which we can judge the kinds of assessments that are made, in some cases quite, quite enthusiastically in this report.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    A separate group of academics and scientists published a letter that said: "Because of structural limitations, the team wasn't given the mandate, the independence, or the necessary accesses to carry out a full and unrestricted investigation."

  • David Relman:

    When it fails to produce evidence pro or con for or against a lab origin, which as well is a very credible hypothesis, one shouldn't then conclude that it's very unlikely. We can't simply dismiss one idea as very unlikely and hold another as very likely, when, in both cases, we have no direct evidence.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Former administration officials go even further on the lab. A January State Department statement that three former officials tell "PBS NewsHour" was the result of new intelligence the U.S. received last fall concluded: "Several researchers at the lab became sick with a COVID-like illness in the fall of 2019. The Wuhan Institute of Virology had a separate military-run lab" and that the lab — quote — "altered and then removed" online records of its work.

  • Miles Yu:

    From the get-go, this team lacks sufficient authenticity and credibility, because it goes in on the terms of the Chinese government. This is a government that started the cover-up from the very beginning.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Miles Yu was the China policy adviser in the State Department during the Trump administration, and is now a fellow at the Hoover and Hudson institutes.

    He and others make a political argument, starting with the WHO itself. Last summer, according to three former senior officials, the Trump administration proposed three scientists to represent the U.S., Heinz Feldmann NIH, Navy Captain Brianna Skinner from the FDA, and Matt Moore from CDC.

    The WHO called none of them, and instead chose Daszak. Daszak's one of the world's foremost virus experts and has spent years collaborating with the Wuhan Institute of Virology. His critics say that makes him biased, and argue that, in China, Chinese scientists ultimately answer to the Communist Party.

  • Miles Yu:

    Let me put it this way. All the Chinese scientists who have spoken the truth have all disappeared. So, what we're hear from the Chinese scientists — many of them may be excellent scientists — are state-sanctioned views. So, that's not really the whole picture. We want the truth.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Are you confident that you would know if the scientists at the lab who you were speaking to were lying?

  • Dr. Peter Daszak:

    Yes, I have been speaking to them for 15 years. If they had found a virus that was high, of high interest that they were working on, they would have told me before the outbreak, because that's what we were doing before the outbreak.

    We shared information on a weekly basis. Yes, some of them answer up the party chain, but they also are scientists. If there is something that the intelligence agencies know that they could supply to the WHO team, they would supply it and we will look at that.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Publicly, Secretary of State Tony Blinken backs up Trump era concerns.

  • Sec. Tony Blinken:

    We have got real concerns about the methodology and the process that went into that report, including the fact that the government in Beijing apparently helped to write it.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    But, privately, Biden administration officials question the January statement. A senior State Department official told "PBS NewsHour" the statement put spin on the ball and was plucked out of a cacophony of noise to point to one theory.

    A senior intelligence official tells "PBS NewsHour" there's a possibility COVID came from a lab, but the January statement was not a complete story and the intelligence community does not have high confidence in any origin theory.

    Did you put spin on the ball?

  • Miles Yu:

    I don't think so. What we're disclosing is not a conclusion. We're just pointing out there are some cases that require independent inquiry.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And do you believe today's WHO report answers some of the questions that you asked?

  • Miles Yu:

    No. The international organization has lost its credibility by believing one government narrative.

  • Dr. Peter Daszak:

    It's a distraction from the failures of the last administration. And it's a very politically expedient distraction to blame it on China. This is a politicization of a pandemic that is hindering progress.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Tomorrow, the WHO will release the report publicly. Its authors admit it doesn't provide all the answers. But it also won't silence the debate over the origins of COVID-19.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Nick Schifrin.

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