Washington: The controversy over the investigation organised by the World Health Organisation and China about the origins of COVID-19 heated up as a group of scientists called for an independent probe to consider all hypotheses and nail down whether the virus came from an animal.
A group of more than 20 signatories said in an open letter published by the Wall Street Journal that the existing mission isn't independent enough and demanded a new probe to consider all possibilities over the origin. Half of the joint team are Chinese citizens whose scientific independence may be limited, they said.
The criticism comes as the mission considers delaying an interim report, which was expected soon. The investigators may instead publish that summary statement on the same day as the full report, a WHO spokesman said.
The organisation expects to have clearer ideas on future studies and missions needed around key hypotheses once it has received the full report and will discuss the next steps with member states, he said.
Last month, the mission rejected speculation that the coronavirus could have leaked from a lab and said instead that it may have jumped to humans through an animal host or frozen wildlife products. WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus later said the United Nations agency hasn't ruled out any hypotheses.
The WHO has faced criticism since the outbreak of the pandemic that it's been too deferential to China. Former US President Donald Trump advanced the theory that the virus might have escaped from a high-security virology lab in Wuhan, the Chinese city where the virus was first detected.
The mission followed months of negotiation with China. Stung by criticism that they initially covered up the extent of the crisis, Chinese state media and officials have promoted the theory that the virus didn't start in the country, but was brought in.
The scientists who signed the open letter included the lab scenario among the possibilities. Signatories include Steven Quay, chief executive officer at Atossa Therapeutics Inc., which develops treatments for breast cancer and COVID-19, while Jamie Metzl, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, co-organised the letter.
None of the signatories were members of the WHO-backed mission.
China's foreign ministry said Friday in response to a question about the open letter that there had been top Chinese experts on the WHO team that went to Wuhan to look into the virus's origins, and that China hoped other nations could cooperate on similar inquiries.
"This open letter by the scientists you talked about, whether they are making suggestions out of professional attitude or they're politicising the issue and making the presumption of guilt, I believe they know this very clearly," foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin told a daily briefing in Beijing.