The search for the origin of the coronavirus is tough. China feels wrongly pilloried. A pure science council should help. But China, Russia and Brazil are preventing consensus there.

According to a new expert council, in the search for the origin of the Sars-CoV-2 coronavirus, the possibility of escaping from a laboratory must also be examined. This was recommended by the independent expert council (SAGO) on Thursday in Geneva, which the World Health Organization (WHO) launched in October 2021. The Berlin virus researcher Christian Drosten is also a member. Further studies are needed to “evaluate the possibility of Sars-CoV-2 being introduced into the human population through a laboratory accident”.

In the investigations into the origin of the corona virus, many important questions are still open, the committee explained. The most likely theory is still that the corona virus jumped from an animal to humans via an intermediate host – even if the original host, the intermediate host or hosts and the exact transmission route have still not been clarified.

Corona origin: laboratory thesis one of many

Research on corona viruses is being carried out in Wuhan in China, where the first Sars-CoV-2 cases appeared at the end of 2019. The necessary investigations include an “assessment of potential scenarios in which failure of biosecurity procedures has led to possible laboratory-associated infection with the investigated pathogen,” the report says. Council President Marietjie Venter emphasized that the recommendation says nothing about how likely the laboratory thesis is. Studies are also needed to disprove them.

“Just because it’s in the report doesn’t mean we definitely believe it,” she said, referring to the lab thesis. Her colleague Jean-Claude Manuguerra added: “We have to be open and examine all the hypotheses, including this one.”

Among other things, the SAGO experts are demanding access to staff and data from research laboratories in China and other countries that work with corona viruses in order to check their safety precautions.

Scientists from China, Russia and Brazil prevent consensus

However, three members of the almost 30-strong panel did not want to support this recommendation: The scientists from China, Russia and Brazil recorded their rejection in a footnote of the report. China rejects the thesis that the virus could have come from a Chinese laboratory. And Beijing is refusing the arrival of another international group of experts to search for the origin of the virus. Numerous Chinese scientists belonged to the Council. Nevertheless, numerous questions remain unanswered, said Venter – for example about the markets in Wuhan, the origin of animals and early possible corona infections in China.

Everything will be done to implement the SAGO recommendations, said WHO corona expert Maria van Kerkhove. But this requires the cooperation of the countries.

Tensions between China and the US prevented expert rise

The Council is to develop guidelines so that future investigations into pandemic outbreaks can be started more quickly. There was tension with the corona virus, especially between China and the USA. Former US President Donald Trump blamed China for the spread of the virus.

Because of the tensions, the international experts were only able to enter China in 2021 – more than a year after the virus was discovered. However, the report presented by the experts did not provide any clear results on the origin of the pandemic. The WHO experts classified the so-called laboratory thesis as “extremely unlikely”.

However, doubts and criticism quickly arose about the report and the investigation itself. Many countries have expressed concern that international experts have been denied access to important data in their investigation in China. The Chinese government has so far vehemently rejected further investigations, as requested by WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.