WHO zoologist Peter Ben Embarek (R) talks with Chinese CDC counterpart Liang Wannian (L) during a press conference following a visit by the international team of experts from the World Health Organization (WHO) in the city of Wuhan, in China's Hubei province on February 9, 2021. Photo: Hector Retamal/AFP

One of new US President Joe Biden’s first acts in office was to rejoin the World Health Organization (WHO). But less than a month after heaping praise on it as “an entity critical to… advancing preparedness for future epidemics and pandemics” his administration is already displeased.

Just a day after a WHO team summed up its two-week look into the possible origins of the coronavirus outbreak in the Chinese city of Wuhan, Biden’s top national security advisor, Jake Sullivan, expressed annoyance that China had handed over no data on what was going on at a major virology lab in the city.

“We have deep concerns about the way in which the early findings of the Covid-19 investigation were communicated and questions about the process used to reach them,” Sullivan said.

“It is imperative that this report be independent, with expert findings free from intervention or alteration by the Chinese government. China must make available its data from the earliest days of the outbreak,” he added.

At stake is not only the WHO’s credibility. It is also a challenge for the Biden administration, which made a point of rejoining the international organization after it had been snubbed by his predecessor Donald Trump. Biden thus needs to assure the American public that the WHO is a trustworthy organization deserving of US support.

Trump had accused the WHO of being a puppet of Beijing, one that uncritically conveyed Chinese propaganda in the early stages of the coronavirus outbreak. So was he right?

It took a year for China to admit a team of WHO researchers to look into the origins of coronavirus. Terms of reference for the investigative team’s access to Wuhan was issued late last July; the team finally arrived in January.

Peter Ben Embarek, a WHO affiliated authority on zoonotic diseases, said during a press conference in Wuhan on that food and cold chain products from outside China could have been a cause of Wuhan’s initial Covid-19 outbreak. Photo: AFP

The team praised China’s cooperation during their visit. During last week’s press conference in Wuhan, WHO speakers repeatedly suggested that the just-completed probe was just the “China part” of a bigger investigation. Time to move on to maybe Thailand and Laos, or the United Kingdom, Italy and Spain, or anywhere else the disease has broken out.

The ten-member group, after conversations with Chinese scientists and officials, concluded that transmission of the virus from bats to humans probably occurred through an intermediate animal like the pangolin. This was called “the most likely pathway.”

It was also possible that the coronavirus infected humans directly from bats, the researchers said. A third possibility: it was carried to Wuhan inside or on the surface of packaged frozen food.

The researchers then all but dismissed the theory that the virus escaped from the Wuhan Institute of Virology, China’s leading such research center. Trump had insisted the virus originated there.

Research team leader Peter Ben Embarek, an American zoologist affiliated with the WHO, said the hypothesis would not be pursued further in coming continued research. In all cases, the WHO team reached the same conclusions that Chinese state media had been trumpeting for months.

Last December, in a long article in the government’s Global Times newspaper, animal transmission and frozen food both took center stage. The Wuhan institute was not mentioned at all. Embarek justified calling an end to investigations into the institute saying that accidental escapes of viruses are “extremely rare.”

Then Sullivan’s remarks on lack of data access created a firestorm.

National Security Advisor nominee Jake Sullivan after being introduced by President-elect Joe Biden on November 24, 2020, in Wilmington, Delaware. Photo: AFP/Mark Makela/Getty Images

One British team member, Peter Daszak, shot back on Twitter: “As lead of animal/environment working group I found trust & openness w/ my China counterparts. We DID get access to critical new data throughout.”

However, another of the WHO researchers, Dominic Dwyer, an Australian infectious disease specialist, said that the team was given only summaries of studies, not access to raw data.

“Why that doesn’t happen, I couldn’t comment,” he said. “Whether it’s political or time or it’s difficult. But whether there are any other reasons why the data isn’t available, I don’t know. One would only speculate.”

Finally, WHO general director Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, without taking sides but appearing to appease Washington, said that no origin theory had been eliminated, including that the virus escaped from a lab.

At this point, the question is: even if a viral escape from a lab is indeed rare, aren’t pandemics of this sort rare and destructive enough that no investigative stone should be left unturned? Why wouldn’t a lab that did research on such viruses be subject to deep investigation?

Maybe Biden, attached as he is to working with allies, ought to round up America’s friends and insist on such a call. The WHO still needs raw data from the Wuhan lab to draw any definitive conclusions on the pandemic’s origin.