The essential attempt to probe the beginnings of the Covid-19 pandemic, backed by the World Health Organisation (WHO), has got off to a shaky start. A set of provenance scenarios were presented in a report published last week that upheld as "likely to very likely", the theory that the Sars-CoV-2 virus appeared naturally - perhaps in bats or pangolins - and was transmitted to humans via an unidentified animal. The idea prevalent in some quarters that the virus could have escaped from a laboratory in China was described as "extremely unlikely". The "cold chain" hypothesis - that the virus could have reached China through imported frozen food - was not dismissed. But the suggestion that the virus could have been food-borne or that it could have contaminated the cold chain was deemed "very low".
More a study than an investigation, the report was the work of an international team comprising 17 WHO scientists from around the world and 17 scientists from China. Its findings have since been faulted for being less than rigorous for a few reasons. For one thing, the four-week field visit to Wuhan in January and February that formed the basis of the report took place more than a year after a cluster of Covid-19 cases were first reported in China. Secondly, the data for the study came entirely from Chinese scientists. China has said that this was only logical and that the visiting scientists got to interview Chinese researchers, doctors and patients during their stay. While Beijing maintains that it was open, transparent and acted responsibly, it turned down the scientists' request for the raw data of the more than 76,000 patients with Covid-like symptoms in late 2019.
What was meant to be a serious global quest to identify the zoonotic source of the virus and the route of introduction to people has thus teetered. WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus refused to dismiss the possibility of a biosafety breach at the Wuhan Institute of Virology which was studying coronaviruses. Sharper dissensions were made by a group of 14 countries, including the United States, Britain, Japan and Australia, which criticised the delay in the study and the lack of access to data and samples. China, for its part, pressed calls to probe the idea that the virus leaked from a United States Army laboratory.
The effort to unravel the many unknown facets - including the animal that was the intermediary - will not get easier. Scientific undertakings of this nature can take years but are worth the effort because only such knowledge can help prevent future pandemics. The world has to sanction a credible inquiry. Geopolitical wrestling and animosity cannot be allowed to cloud matters of global health security. In the year since the global outbreak, more than 130 million people have been infected, over 2.8 million have died and economies have crashed. Surely, those are reasons enough.