The team of researchers outlined four potential outbreak scenarios in their initial report, the least likely of which was the lab leak hypothesis. After noting that it nonetheless had to be investigated as part of Phase 2, China refused to let them back in. As a result, the program has been quietly abandoned altogether.
According to Nature, following the release of the aforementioned report, the WHO sent a notice to member states going over how they planned on investigating all four potential outbreak scenarios. China flatly rejected the proposal, claiming that it made no sense to look into the lab leak hypothesis.
The most likely theory developed by the team of researchers that visited Wuhan in 2021 was that COVID-19 spread from bats to people, potentially via an intermediate species. China, though supportive of the theory over the lab leak hypothesis, still appeared reluctant to allow them to come back and test the notorious wet markets and the farms that supplied the products.
Without access to China, the WHO and its researchers were unable to get much further in their investigation. "Their hands are really tied," University of Saskatchewan virologist Angela Rasmussen said.
WHO epidemiologist Maria Van Kerkhove and National Emerging Infectious Diseases Laboratory Institute associate director Gerald Keusch suggested a changing political landscape caused the deterioration of relations between the team of researchers and China.
"The politics across the world of this really hampered progress on understanding the origins," Van Kerkhove said, with Keusch arguing that the situation was "poorly handled by the global community," including both China and the WHO.
According to Van Kerkhove, WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus has attempted to mend relations with Chinese officials, and staff have contacted the China Center for Disease Control and Prevention in Beijing.
Van Kerkhove said the situation has led to "deep frustration" among all involved, adding, "We really, really want to be able to work with our colleagues" in China.
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