One of the scientists the World Health Organization tapped to investigate the origins of the coronavirus signed a controversial letter dismissing the idea that the virus emerged from a Chinese lab as a "conspiracy theory."
Christian Drosten, the head of Germany's Institute of Virology at Charité, is one of the 26 advisers the World Health Organization proposed Wednesday to serve on an advisory panel that will trace the virus's origins. In 2020, he co-authored a letter that "strongly" condemned "conspiracy theories suggesting that COVID-19 does not have a natural origin." Drosten's nomination could pose a problem for the World Health Organization, which is convening this panel after its first investigation into COVID's origins was marred by conflict of interest allegations.
Chinese authorities have tried to downplay the lab leak theory, suggesting instead that the U.S. military created the virus. But there is a growing scientific consensus that the virus first escaped from China's Wuhan Institute of Virology. A declassified intelligence report said a U.S. intelligence agency assessed with "medium" confidence that a leak at the Wuhan lab was the most likely explanation for the virus. Four other intelligence agencies said with "low" confidence that the virus emerged from nature.
The World Health Organization is accepting input from the public before finalizing its list of advisers. The health body is taking additional steps to validate the advisers after its first mission to China was marred by concerns that one of the team members, Peter Daszak, had conflicts of interest involving the Wuhan Institute of Virology. Daszak leads the EcoHealth Alliance, which has worked closely over the years with the Wuhan lab on the detection of viruses in bats.
Daszak also came under scrutiny for his role in recruiting the scientists who signed the letter dismissing the lab leak theory as a conspiracy.
"The rapid, open, and transparent sharing of data on this outbreak is now being threatened by rumours and misinformation around its origins," Daszak, Drosten, and their co-authors wrote in the letter, published by the Lancet.
Other scientists put forward by the World Health Organization have cast doubt that a lab leak was responsible for the pandemic. Dr. Marion Koopmans and Dr. John Watson, who both served on the first World Health Organization team, have called the lab leak theory "extremely unlikely." Watson also denied claims that Chinese authorities withheld information from the World Health Organization team. He told the BBC that Chinese officials provided the scientists with a "great deal" of data from early in the pandemic.
Watson's comments conflict with statements from President Joe Biden as well as other scientists on the World Health Organization team who have said the Chinese government was not cooperative during the investigation.
There is little confidence that China will cooperate with the new team's investigation.
"This new group can do all the fancy footwork it wants, but China's not going to cooperate," Council on Foreign Relations senior fellow David Fidler told the New York Times. "For them, all of this continues to look like an attack on China's response to the pandemic, and there it's a zero-sum game."