WHO set to release long-awaited report into Covid-19 outbreak


Beijing’s pet theory that the Covid-19 pandemic could have originated outside China is unlikely but more plausible than the US suggestion that the virus escaped from a Wuhan lab, WHO experts said today in a long-awaited report. 

Scientists found instead that the virus probably passed to humans from a bat via an intermediary animal, with several suspects named including mink, pangolins, rabbits and ferret badgers. 

But the panel failed to reach a conclusion on whether the Huanan seafood market linked to a cluster of early cases was the place where the pandemic was born.  

The politically sensitive report was drafted by WHO experts and their Chinese counterparts following an expert mission to Wuhan earlier this year which was plagued by doubts about China’s transparency. 

The top US diplomats under both Joe Biden and Donald Trump have both cast doubt on the report, with Antony Blinken telling CNN that ‘Beijing apparently helped to write it’ while Mike Pompeo called it a ‘sham’. 

Dogged by accusations of being too close to Beijing, WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus has said that all theories remain open on how the outbreak began.  

Verdict: The WHO report says Covid-19 is 'likely to very likely' to have jumped to humans via a bat and another animal, might alternatively have jumped to humans in a single step, could possibly have via imported food and is 'extremely unlikely' to have leaked from a laboratory

Verdict: The WHO report says Covid-19 is ‘likely to very likely’ to have jumped to humans via a bat and another animal, might alternatively have jumped to humans in a single step, could possibly have via imported food and is ‘extremely unlikely’ to have leaked from a laboratory 

Members of the WHO's expert panel arrive to visit a museum exhibition about China's fight against Covid-19, on a visit in January which raised doubts about China's transparency

Members of the WHO’s expert panel arrive to visit a museum exhibition about China’s fight against Covid-19, on a visit in January which raised doubts about China’s transparency 

WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, pictured shaking hands with Chinese leader Xi Jinping last January, has been accused of being too close to Beijing

WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, pictured shaking hands with Chinese leader Xi Jinping last January, has been accused of being too close to Beijing 

China’s official timeline vs new evidence

Official timeline 

Dec 8, 2019 – Earliest date that China has acknowledged an infection

Dec 31 – China first reported ‘pneumonia of unknown cause’ to the World Health Organisation

Jan 1, 2020 – Wuhan seafood market closed for disinfection

Jan 11 – China reported its first death 

Jan 23 – Wuhan locked down

Jan 31 – WHO declared ‘outbreak of international concern’ as China admitted having thousands of cases

Feb 23 – Italy reports cluster of cases in first major outbreak in the West 

New evidence 

Sep 2019 – Blood samples are taken in a lung cancer screening trial in Italy which later test positive for coronavirus

Oct-Dec – Rise in ‘flu and pneumonia’ cases in northern Italy which could be linked to coronavirus  

Nov – Sewage samples taken in Florianópolis, Brazil, suggest virus was present

Nov 10 – Milanese woman has a skin biopsy, producing a sample which later shows signs of the virus  

Nov 17 – Leaked documents suggest case detected in China on this date

Dec 1 – Chinese researchers report an infection on this date in a peer-reviewed study, but it has not been acknowledged by Beijing 

Dec 18 – Sewage samples taken in Milan and Turin suggest virus was circulating in the cities 

Jan 2020 – Sewage samples from Barcelona suggest virus was in the city

The report authors offered a ranked list of possible ways the virus could have made the jump to humans, calling a direct leap ‘possible to likely’ and a scenario with an intermediate animal ‘likely to very likely’. 

Beijing’s frozen-food theory is judged ‘possible’, while the lab-leak theory promoted by the US government among others, which experts say is ‘extremely unlikely’. 

The lab-leak claims have centred on the secretive Wuhan Institute of Virology based in the city where the outbreak first came to light.  

The Trump administration claimed in its final days in office that some researchers at the lab had become sick in autumn 2019, before the first cases were confirmed.

But the WHO report rejects these claims, describing the lab as a ‘well-managed’ facility with a staff health monitoring programme which had uncovered no suspicious illnesses in the weeks and months before the outbreak. 

The scientists say there is no record of any laboratory possessing viruses closely related to Covid-19 before December 2019, or sequences of genomes that could have produced the coronavirus in combination. 

They also believe that the risk of ‘accidental culturing’ of the virus is ‘extremely low’.   

‘In view of the above, a laboratory origin of the pandemic was considered to be extremely unlikely,’ the report said.  

The WHO report left ‘not everything answered’ but was ‘surely a good start’, Dutch virologist and team member Marion Koopmans said. 

But in Geneva on Monday, WHO boss Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus stressed that ‘all hypotheses are open, from what I read from the report… and warrant complete and further studies’.  

The UK and US both raised concerns about China’s transparency during the WHO trip, which followed months of negotiations with Beijing. 

It took months to select the 10 international experts, including epidemiologists and animal health specialists, amid diplomatic wrangling with China.    

In the end, they arrived in Wuhan more than a year after the virus was first identified there before erupting around the world and killing more than two million people. 

Scientists in several countries including France and Italy have found evidence that the virus had already reached them in the final months of 2019.  

But it was not until December 31, 2019 that the WHO’s China office was informed of a mystery pneumonia which had sickened 44 people in Wuhan. 

Later, the WHO was informed that at least one patient in Wuhan – a major transport hub – had been showing symptoms as early as December 8.     

A separate WHO-backed report said it was ‘clear’ that ‘public health measures could have been applied more forcefully by local and national health authorities in China’ last January.  

Chinese theory: Beijing has embraced the suggestion that the virus could have been imported on frozen food from abroad

Chinese theory: Beijing has embraced the suggestion that the virus could have been imported on frozen food from abroad

US theory: Washington has touted claims that the virus could have leaked out of the high-security Wuhan Institute of Virology, pictured last month

US theory: Washington has touted claims that the virus could have leaked out of the high-security Wuhan Institute of Virology, pictured last month 

The panel, set up last July after countries including Australia angered China by calling for an investigation, said there was ‘potential for early signs to have been acted on more rapidly’ by both China and the WHO. 

The criticism is at odds with the WHO’s public statements at the time, when it praised China for the ‘remarkable speed’ with which it responded to the outbreak. 

Beijing has touted its recovery from the early outbreak as a triumph for its Communist leaders, with China’s economy the only major one to grow in 2020. 

But numerous reports have detailed how China withheld key details about the virus in its early stages, including from the WHO which has praised China in public. 

A young doctor, Li Wenliang, was reprimanded by police after trying to raise the alarm about the disease – and later died of it. 

Human Rights Watch director Ken Roth said the WHO was guilty of ‘institutional complicity’ when it gave credence to some of Beijing’s early claims about the outbreak.

‘WHO has absolutely refused as an institution to say anything critical about China’s cover-up of human-to-human transmission, or its ongoing refusal to provide the basic evidence,’ he told reporters last month.

‘What we need is an honest, vigorous inquiry rather than further deference to China’s cover-up efforts.’

One diplomatic observer in Geneva said the WHO had let China do the preliminary investigative work on its own, and then control the terms of the investigation. 

They added that some member states who had criticised the situation in private steered away from public criticsm.

Former US president Donald Trump famously slammed the WHO over its relationship with Beijing.

He accused the WHO of being a ‘puppet of China’ and even covering up the initial outbreak of the virus.

He began the 12-month process of withdrawing from the organisation last July – a policy immediately reversed by his successor Joe Biden in January. 

Covid-19 has killed more than 2.8 million people worldwide in the 15 months since it emerged, forcing governments around the world to introduce punishing restrictions that have pummelled the global economy. 

WHO’s ‘China-centric’ chief is a career politician who worked for a Communist junta and became the first NON-doctor Director-General ‘following intense lobbying from Beijing’

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, a little-known figure before the coronavirus pandemic, has risen to prominence as Director-General of the World Health Organisation which is spearheading global responses to the virus.

Dr Tedros – who has never practised as a medical doctor – is a career politician who was born in what is now Eritrea, began work under the Communist Derg junta, came to study in the UK, then rose to the top of Ethiopia’s government first as Health Minister and then Foreign Minister before being elected to lead the WHO in 2017.

He has faced heavy criticism over his handling of the pandemic, especially for praise he heaped on China’s communist party for its response – hailing the regime’s ‘commitment to transparency’ and saying the speed with which it detected the virus was ‘beyond words’.

That has led to allegations – including by Donald Trump – that the WHO is ‘China-centric’, and prompted Trump to pull US funding to the UN body.

It was not the first time that Dr Tedros has been accused of cosying up to China. Shortly after his election victory in 2017, it was alleged that Chinese diplomats had been heavily involved in lobbying for him.

UN records also show that Chinese contributions to both Ethiopia’s aid budget and the WHO have substantially increased during times when he was in top leadership positions.

Dr Tedros (left) became the first African head of the WHO and the first non-medical doctor to hold the role when he was elected in 2017, amid allegations of heavy lobbying by China (pictured, Dr Tedros in Beijing shortly after his election)

Dr Tedros (left) became the first African head of the WHO and the first non-medical doctor to hold the role when he was elected in 2017, amid allegations of heavy lobbying by China (pictured, Dr Tedros in Beijing shortly after his election)

Shortly after his election to the WHO, a report in The Times said: ‘Chinese diplomats had campaigned hard for the Ethiopian, using Beijing’s financial clout and opaque aid budget to build support for him among developing countries.’

Dr Tedros – who is married and has five children – was born in 1965 in Asmara, which was part of Ethiopia at the time but is now in Eritrea. 

As a child he saw his younger brother die to an infection, which he believes was measles, which he later said spurred his determination to work on health and health policy.

He graduated from university in Ethiopia in 1986 with a degree in biology and went to work as a health official in the regime of Marxist dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam, while the country was ruled by the Derg military junta.

According to the BBC, Dr Tedros then joined the hard-left TPLF – which started life as a Communist party and played a major role in overthrowing Mariam in 1991. It later became part of the EPRDF, a coalition of left-wing parties that ruled Ethiopia until last year.

Around the same time as Mariam’s ouster, Dr Tedros left Ethiopia and came to the UK where he studied at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, graduating with Masters of Science in Immunology of Infectious Diseases in 1992.

He then went on to study at the University of Nottingham, where he received a PhD in community health in 2000.

After this, he returned to Ethiopia where he joined the health ministry and rose through the ranks from regional health minister all the way to national Minister for Heath – a position he took up in 2005.

During his tenure, which lasted until 2012, he was widely praised for opening thousands of health centres, employing tens of thousands of medics, bringing down rates of HIV/AIDS, measles and malaria, as well as bringing information technology and the internet into the heath system.

In November 2012 he was promoted to Foreign Minister, and was widely hailed for helping to negotiate a boost in UN funding for Ethiopia, including as part of the Addis Ababa Action Agenda.

Indeed, UN funding records show that around this time the country received millions in additional funding – including from China, which had previously given little or nothing to support the country.

In 2015 and 2016 China gave some $16million to Ethiopia in spending commitments and cash contributions, largely in support of food or refugee programmes.

In 2011, just before Dr Tedros took up the role, and in 2017, just after he left, China handed over another $44million in commitments and contributions.

Its total contributions outside of this period, dating back to the year 2000, were just $345,000. 

In 2017, Dr Tedros left the Ethiopian government and entered the running for Director-General of the WHO as the tenure of Dr Margaret Chan, a Canadian-Chinese physician, was coming to an end.

The election was the first to take place under a system of polling all UN member states as part of a secret ballot. Previously, leaders were chosen by a closed-door vote of an executive committee.

Eventually the field was boiled down to two candidates – Dr Tedros and Briton Dr David Nabarro, a life-long physician who had helped lead UN responses to previous outbreaks including bird flu, the cholera outbreak in Haiti, and the Ebola outbreak in West Africa.

Before ascending to the top ranks of the WHO, Dr Tedros studied in the UK and served Ethiopia's ruling left-wing coalition as health minister and then as foreign minister (pictured in the role in 2015)

Before ascending to the top ranks of the WHO, Dr Tedros studied in the UK and served Ethiopia’s ruling left-wing coalition as health minister and then as foreign minister (pictured in the role in 2015)

Dr Tedros won the ballot by a reported 133 votes to 50, becoming the first African leader of the WHO and the first non-medic to hold the role. His victory came in part thanks to 50 out of 54 African states voting for him.

However, he quickly mired himself in controversy by recommending African dictator Robert Mugabe as a WHO Goodwill Ambassador, amid allegations he trying to repay favours granted during the election.

There were reports that the move was also intended to reward China, a long-time supporter of Mugabe, for using its influence to have him elected.

The Times added: ‘China has praised the authoritarian development model of Ethiopia’s regime, which rules under emergency powers and has put down pro-democracy protests.’

During the 2017 election itself, several groups within Ethiopia opposed Dr Tedros’s appointment due to his links with the TPLF and allegations that they stifled journalists and repressed minorities.

Dr Tedros was also accused of covering up three separate cholera outbreaks in 2006, 2008 and 2011 by mis-reporting it as ‘watery diarrhea’, allegations he dismissed as a ‘smear campaign’ by his British rival.

Following his election to the WHO, Dr Tedros vowed to reform the organisation by placing an emphasis on universal healthcare at its centre while also increasing funding.

Further UN funding records show that, during his tenure, assessed contributions to the WHO by China have also risen significantly – from roughly $23million in 2016 to $38million in 2019.

China has also committed to a further $57million in funding in 2020, though has yet to pay the balance.

Meanwhile funding from other major world economies – including the US, Russia, Japan and Germany – has remained largely flat or even fallen over the same period.

Assessed contributions make up only around a quarter of the WHO’s budget, the rest of which comes from donations. 

The great cover-up of China: Beijing punished Covid whistleblower, claimed it came from US and ‘lied about death figures’ 

China has lied and covered up key information during virtually every stage of its coronavirus response – from the initial outbreak to the number of cases and deaths, and is still not telling the truth, observers, experts and politicians have warned.

Beijing initially tried to cover up the virus by punishing medics who discovered it, denying it could spread person-to-person and delaying a lockdown of affected regions – meaning early opportunities to control the spread were lost.

Then, once the virus began spreading, the Communist Party began censoring public information about it and spread disinformation overseas – including suggesting that US troops could have been the initial carriers.

Even now, prominent politicians have warned that infection and death totals being reported by the regime are likely to be wrong – with locals in the epicenter of Wuhan suggesting the true tolls could be ten times higher.

Initial outbreak

Doctors in China, including Li Wenliang, began reporting the existence of a new type of respiratory infection that was similar to SARS in early December last year.

But rather than publicise the reports and warn the public, Chinese police hauled Wenliang and eight of his colleagues who had been posting about the virus online in for questioning.

Wenliang, who would later die from the virus, was forced to sign a document admitting the information he published was false.

While China has been widely-praised for a draconian lockdown that helped slow the spread of the virus, evidence suggests that the country could have acted much quicker to prevent the spread.

Li Wenliang

Li Wenliang

Dr Li Wenliang, one of the first Chinese medics to report the existence of the new coronavirus, was forced by police to confess to spreading false data. He later died from the virus

Samples analysed as early as December 26 suggested a new type of SARS was circulating, the Washington Post reported, but Wuhan was not locked down until January 22 – almost a month later.

Wuhan’s mayor also admitted an error that allowed 5million people to travel out of the city before the lockdown came into place without being checked for the virus, potentially helping it to spread. 

Chinese authorities have also been reluctant to had over information on the country’s ‘patient zero’ – or the first person known to have contracted the virus.

While Beijing claims the first infection took place on December 8, researchers have traced the virus back to at least December 1 and anecdotal evidence suggests it was spreading in November.

A lack of information about the first patient has meant scientists are still unclear how the disease made the leap from animals into humans.

Theories include that it could have been carried by a bat or pangolin that was sold at a market in Wuhan and then eaten by someone, but this has not been confirmed. 

Early reports

Chinese authorities initially reported that the virus could not spread person-to-person, despite evidence that it was spreading rapidly through the city of Wuhan including doctors being infected by patients.

This was used as justification for keeping the city of Wuhan operating as normal through a major CCP conference that was held between January 11 and 17, with authorities claiming zero new cases in this period.

China did not confirm human-to-human transmission of the virus until late January, when large parts of Hubei province including Wuhan were put into lockdown. 

Despite reporting the existence of a ‘novel type of pneumonia’ to the World Health Organisation on December 31, Wuhan’s largest newspaper also made no mention of the virus until the week of January 20.

That meant people in the city were not taking precautions such as social distancing to stop it spreading.

It also meant that people had begun travelling for the Lunar New Year holiday, which was due to start on January 24 and sees millions of people visit relatives, spreading the virus further. 

Furthermore, China delayed reports suggesting that some 14 per cent of patients who initially tested negative for the virus or who appeared to have recovered tested positive a second time, only confirming such cases in February.

That further hampered efforts at early containment of the virus in places such as Japan, where patients who tested negative on board the Diamond Princess cruise ship were allowed to leave – only to test positive later. 

Authorities in Beijing were also slow to report the deaths of two doctors from the virus, including one who was killed on January 25 but whose death was not reported by state media until a month later. 

The market was shut on January 1 after dozens of workers there had contracted the disease

The market was shut on January 1 after dozens of workers there had contracted the disease

Origin of the virus

Despite early admissions that the virus began in the city of Wuhan, China later back-tracked – even going so far as to suggest American troops had brought the infection over after visiting the province.

Lijian Zhao, a prominent official within the Chinese Foreign Ministry, tweeted out the claim on March 12 while providing no evidence to substantiate it.

‘When did patient zero begin in US? How many people are infected? What are the names of the hospitals,’ he wrote.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said the U.S. lacked transparency and accused American military members of bringing the coronavirus to Wuhan

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian accused American military members of bringing the coronavirus to Wuhan

Referencing a military athletics tournament in Wuhan in October, which US troops attended, he wrote: ‘It might be US army who brought the epidemic to Wuhan. 

‘Be transparent! Make public your data! US owe us an explanation!’

In fact, America’s ‘patient zero’ was a man who travelled from China to Washington State on January 15. The case was confirmed by the CDC six days later.

Chinese has also tried to push the theory that the virus originated in Italy, the country with the most deaths, by distorting a quote from an Italian doctor who suggested the country’s first cases could have occurred much earlier than thought.

Zhao spread the theory in a tweet, while providing no evidence to back it up

Zhao spread the theory in a tweet, while providing no evidence to back it up

Giuseppe Remuzzi said he is investigating strange cases of pneumonia as far back as December and November, months before the virus was known to have spread.

Chinese state media widely reported his comments while also suggesting that the virus could have originated in Italy.

In fact, Remuzzi says, there can be no doubt it started in Wuhan – but may have spread out of the province and across the world earlier than thought. 

Infection total

China has reported a total of some 82,000 infections from coronavirus, claiming a domestic infection rate of zero for several days in a row recently – even as it eased lockdown restrictions in placed like Hubei.

But, by the country’s own admission, the virus is likely still spreading – via people who have few or no symptoms.

Beijing-based outlet Caixin reported that ‘a couple to over 10 cases of covert infections of the virus are being detected’ in China every day, despite not showing up in official data.

Meanwhile foreign governments have heaped scorn on China’s infection reporting cannot be trusted.

Marco Rubio, a prominent Republican senator and former presidential candidate from the US, tweeted that ‘we have NO IDEA how many cases China really has’ after the US infection total passed Beijing’s official figure.

‘Without any doubt it’s significantly more than what they admit to,’ he added.

Meanwhile the UK government has also cast doubt on China’s reporting, with Conservative minister and former Prime Ministerial candidate Michael Gove claiming the Communist Party could not be trusted.

‘Some of the reporting from China was not clear about the scale, the nature, the infectiousness of this [virus],’ he told the BBC.

Meanwhile sources told the Mail that China’s true infection total could be anything up to 40 times as high as reports had suggested. 

Marco Rubio, a prominent Republican senator, has said that China's figures cannot be trusted and a far higher than has been reported

Marco Rubio, a prominent Republican senator, has said that China’s figures cannot be trusted and a far higher than has been reported 

Death total 

Doubt has also been cast on China’s reported death toll from the virus, which currently stands at around 3,300.

Locals in epicenter city Wuhan have been keeping an eye on funeral homes since lockdown restrictions were partly lifted, claiming they have been ‘working around the clock’ to dispose of bodies.

China has reported 3,300 deaths from the virus, but social media users in Wuhan have suggested the toll could be in excess of 42,000

China has reported 3,300 deaths from the virus, but social media users in Wuhan have suggested the toll could be in excess of 42,000

Social media posts estimate that 3,500 urns are being handed out by crematoriums each day, while Caixin reports that one funeral home in the city placed an order for 5,000 urns.

Locals believe that efforts to dispose of the bodies began March 23 and city authorities have said the process will end on or around April 5.

That would mean roughly 42,000 urns handed out in that time frame, ten times the reported figure. 

Chinese aid packages 

As it brought its own coronavirus epidemic under control and as the disease spread across the rest of the world, China attempted to paint itself as a helpful neighbour by sending aid and supplies to countries most in need – such as Italy.

In fact, while the Chinese Red Cross supplied some free equipment to the Italians, the country purchased a large amount of what it received.

Meanwhile officials in Spain said that a batch of coronavirus testing kits bought from China had just 30 per cent reliability – unlike the 80 per cent they were promised.

China has said it is willing to help supply the world with much needed aid and supplies, but has been accused of hoarding protective equipment and selling test kits that don't work

China has said it is willing to help supply the world with much needed aid and supplies, but has been accused of hoarding protective equipment and selling test kits that don’t work

China is also the world’s largest manufacturer of disposable masks of the kind being worn to slow the spread of the virus by people while out in public.

But as the disease began gathering speed in the country in January, China began limiting exports of the masks while also buying up supplies from other countries, the New York Times reported.

As well as halting virtually all exports of masks, China also bought up some 56million masks and respirators from overseas while fears of a pandemic were still far off.

Despite reports from US mask manufacturers of factories in Shanghai being effectively nationalised, China denies it has any such policy in place and has said it is ‘willing to strengthen international cooperation’ on the issue. 

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