WHO in unhealthy state of confusionEditorial | Mary Ma 16 Feb 2021
The World Health Organization's fact-finding mission left China last week with a de-facto public assurance that the coronavirus pandemic - which has so far infected over 100 million people and claimed more than two million lives - did not come out of a Wuhan laboratory.
That's contrary to former US secretary of state Mike Pompeo's assertion that the virus may have escaped from a laboratory.
In this sense, WHO's lead investigator Peter Ben Embarek did Beijing a great service when he summed up the mission's preliminary findings at a media conference, saying that the probability of a laboratory leak was "highly unlikely" and that they would not consider it further.
It was not only a slap in the face of Pompeo and his former boss Donald Trump, but also puts pressure on the Joe Biden administration which is keen to return to the WHO and expects to be an assertive member.
The laboratory-leak claim was just a hypothesis and, unless it can be proved, it cannot be said to be true scientifically.
Having demonstrated its prejudice through its biased coverage of the US presidential election, the US mainstream media has lost the moral high ground to claim the investigation was a WHO whitewashing maneuver.
The mission set out to establish the origin of the disease but, unfortunately, the WHO investigators were unable to draw a conclusion on this.
At the media conference, not only were they uncertain if the disease had started in Wuhan or elsewhere, but they also were not certain about which animal species were responsible for the coronavirus outbreak - although bats and pangolins were suspected. Furthermore, for the first time since the pandemic began, international experts suggested the disease may have originated somewhere in Asia before spreading to Wuhan.
That was an innovative assumption.
Despite spending a few weeks in China - including many days quarantined in a hotel - the WHO team appeared a long way from getting to the bottom of the outbreak, which would help the world to preempt another pandemic in future.
So that was the sum total of the findings up to the time of the press conference at the end of the WHO visit.
However, something really bizarre has since occurred in the WHO, bringing to the surface deep divides within the body.
First, WHO director general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus openly substituted Embarek's "highly unlikely" conclusion in relation to the laboratory theory with a clarification that "all hypotheses remain open and require further study."
Then, team members were in open conflict with each other over access to crucial data. Dominic Dwyer from Australia accused China of denying them access to raw data of the earliest patients.
But his Danish and UK colleagues, Thea Fischer and Peter Daszak, disputed this, insisting they had no complaint.
Amazingly, Embarek also backtracked. After saying there was no outbreak in Wuhan before December, he later added that a dozen variants were found in Wuhan, showing the coronavirus had been circulating widely there in December.
The WHO contradicted itself just as the US seeks to return to the fold. No wonder the Chinese embassy in Washington fired back on Sunday, saying the WHO was not a playground to go or come as it wishes.