The World Health Organisation (WHO), the body charged with finding how a virus from central China killed many millions of people and upended the world economy, has dropped the ball. An article appeared in Nature magazine this week, headlined, “WHO abandons plans for crucial second phase of Covid-origins investigation”. It quoted one of the WHO’s scientists, Maria Van Kerkhove, as saying that “there is no phase two… that plan has changed”.
A day later, the WHO insisted it had been misunderstood and would continue investigating. Such confusion is what we have come to expect from this unaccountable, premium-travel-addicted, Geneva-based bureaucracy. In 2020, the WHO took a year to even begin investigating, only then sending a team on a brief trip to Wuhan in early 2021. That ended with a farcical press conference in which, to general incredulity, the WHO seemed to endorse the Chinese regime’s view that a lab leak was extremely unlikely and would not be investigated further, while treating the ridiculous possibility that the virus arrived in Wuhan on frozen foods from abroad as entirely reasonable.
The WHO then backtracked and promised a further investigation. Two years on, and we are still waiting for any news from their work. To call this progress sluggish would be an insult to molluscs. If millions of people had died from an industrial or nuclear accident, we would not spend three years shrugging our shoulders and saying that we may never find out how it happened. The excuse is that Beijing refuses to provide full details of what happened in Wuhan’s hospitals or its virology laboratories. Not that the WHO, which often kow-tows to China, will put it that way. “The politics across the world of this really hampered progress on understanding the origins,” is as close as Dr van Kerkhove gets.
Of course, we know why this is happening. The Chinese authorities, having failed to find infected animals in the local seafood market, having failed to fool the world with a red herring about pangolins (whose virus was different), and having seen their frozen foods theory ridiculed, are running out of alibis to exculpate the Wuhan Institute of Virology. For years, that laboratory experimented with coronaviruses – an area of much controversy within the scientific community – and has since been reluctant to share its virus database.
This is not the first time, moreover, that the WHO has proved unfit for its mission. In 2014, it initially turned away warnings that Ebola was getting out of control in west Africa, for fear of upsetting national governments. In 2015, it told the world that climate change is the greatest threat to human health in the current century, suggesting that it might be neglecting the day job of preventing pandemics. To this day, it demands bans on vaping, despite evidence that vaping can save lives by reducing smoking. This time, however, the WHO has not merely failed at its job. It’s worse than that. By saying it was investigating, then apparently failing, it has prevented others from doing the work. Scientific bodies and governments, including Britain’s, when challenged, kept saying, “We’re leaving this to the WHO.” At least the US Congress, now that Republicans control the House of Representatives, is investigating.
The failure to investigate Covid’s origins leaves the world vulnerable to the next pandemic. The two practices I believe are likely to have caused this one – selling farmed wildlife in markets and harvesting bat viruses for laboratory experiments – continue almost unabated, each using the excuse that it might be the other that caused this pandemic. Avian influenza (or bird flu) is now spreading through wild bird flocks in a far more deadly form than before and starting to infect mammals. We don’t really know how or why it has happened now, though the suspicion is that it is something to do with intensified chicken farming. Investigations are going on at the WHO but – guess what – slowly.
Meanwhile, rogue regimes must be watching and licking their lips. You mean, they say to themselves, all we would have to do to bring the world economy to its knees is find a highly infectious but not very lethal virus and unleash it in a city, and the WHO won’t even bother to investigate properly?