The World Health Organization has reversed its stance on the origins of the coronavirus pandemic and is now recommending a deeper probe into whether it was caused by an accident in a laboratory in China.
Coming more than two years after the virus was first detected in Wuhan, and after at least 6.3 million deaths worldwide, the move may surprise critics who accused the agency of being too quick to dismiss or downplay the lab-leak theory that put Chinese officials on the defensive, as the Associated Press reported.
Just last year, the WHO said it was “extremely unlikely” that COVID came from a lab, and more likely it jumped to humans from an animal such as a bat. In March 2021, WHO released a report about COVID-19’s origins following a highly choreographed visit by international scientists to China.
Now in a report released Thursday, WHO’s expert group said “key pieces of data” to explain how the pandemic began were still missing. The scientists said the group would “remain open to any and all scientific evidence that becomes available in the future to allow for comprehensive testing of all reasonable hypotheses.”
Jean-Claude Manuguerra, a co-chair of the 27-member international advisory group, acknowledged that some scientists might be “allergic” to the idea of investigating the lab-leak theory but said they needed to be “open minded” enough to examine it.
Investigations by the Associated Press found that some top WHO insiders were frustrated by China during the initial outbreak even as WHO heaped praise on Chinese President Xi Jinping. They were also upset over how China sought to clamp down on research into the origins of COVI9.
WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus sent two letters to senior Chinese government officials in February requesting information, including details about the earliest human cases of COVID-19 in the city of Wuhan. It’s unclear whether the Chinese responded.
The experts said no studies were provided to WHO that assessed the possibility of COVID-19 resulting from a laboratory leak.
China responded Friday by calling the lab-leak theory a politically motivated lie, the AP reported. Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian also rejected accusations that China had not fully cooperated with investigators, saying it welcomed a science-based probe but rejected any political manipulation.
Zhao also called for an investigation into “highly suspicious laboratories such as Fort Detrick and the University of North Carolina” in the United States, where China has suggested, without evidence, that the U.S. was developing the coronavirus as a bioweapon.
The WHO development comes as COVID cases are spreading fastest in three key warm-weather tourist destinations in the U.S., Miami-Dade County in Florida, Honolulu County in Hawaii and San Juan in Puerto Rico are current averaging at least 85 new cases a day per 100,000 residents, and positivity rates exceed 20%, the New York Times reported, citing data from its own database. That compares with 34 new cases on average for the entire U.S. per 100,000 residents and a positivity rate of 13% and is another sign that the pandemic is not yet over.
U.S. cases are averaging 109,875 a day, unchanged from two weeks ago, according to the paper’s tracker. The country is averaging 29,321 hospitalizations a day, up 11% from two weeks ago. The daily death toll has fallen to 344 on average, down 4% from two weeks ago, but still an undesirably high number.
In New York City, Mayor Eric Adams is ending a face-mask mandate for 2- to 4-year-olds starting Monday, according to a statement from his office.
“I have always said that the science will guide us out of the pandemic, and because we have followed the data, which shows that cases are steadily falling, we‘ve beaten back the latest COVID-19 surge,” Adams said in the statement. “New Yorkers stepped up when we needed them most and have put us on the path to lower risk.”
The move comes with just two weeks remaining in the public-school year before the summer break.
Other COVID-19 news you should know about:
• Australia’s main medical body is calling on the new prime minister, Anthony Albanese, to revive a focus on COVID, warning that this winter will be “the worst is has ever been” for the country’s healthcare system, the Guardian reported. The Australian Medical Association said the country is also facing a deadly flu season and the hospital system is struggling to cope due to labor shortages. The association’s president, Dr. Omar Khorshid, said next Friday’s meeting of state and territory leaders must come up with a new COVID strategy to ease the burden over winter, after the issue was ignored during the election campaign.
• Japan on Friday eased its borders for foreign tourists and began accepting visa applications, but only for those on guided package tours who are willing to follow masking and other antivirus measures as the country cautiously tries to balance business and infection worries, the AP reported.
• As COVID restrictions are eased and case numbers retreat to more manageable levels, other viruses are resurfacing in new and unusual ways, CNBC reported. Flu, respiratory syncytial virus, adenovirus, tuberculosis and monkeypox are among a number of viruses to have spiked and exhibited strange behaviors in recent months. Experts now say COVID restrictions may have reduced exposure — and lowered immunity — to these illnesses.
• India’s daily COVID case count has almost doubled in a week, and officials are urging people to get vaccinated and wear face masks in public, Bloomberg News reported. India added 7,240 cases on Thursday, the most in a single day in more than three months. But, for now, hospitalizations remain low, and 69% of India’s 1.4 billion people have been administered at least two shots, though so far only 3% have had a booster dose, according to Bloomberg’s Vaccine Tracker.
Here’s what the numbers say
The global tally of confirmed cases of COVID-19 topped 534.2 million on Friday, while the death toll rose above 6.3 million, according to data aggregated by Johns Hopkins University.
The U.S. leads the world with 85.3 million cases and 1,010,805 fatalities.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s tracker shows that 221.6 million people living in the U.S. are fully vaccinated, equal to 66.7% of the total population. But just 104.2 million have had a first booster, equal to 47% of the vaccinated population.
Just 15.2 million of the people aged 50 and over who are eligible for a second booster have had one, equal to 24.1% of those who had a first booster.