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U.S. calls for second study into COVID-19's origins

January 31, 2020
National Institutes of Health official Dr. Anthony Fauci (C) speaks about the coronavirus during a press briefing at the White House in Washington, D.C. Health and Human Services Secretary Alexander Azar (L) announced that the United States is declaring the virus a public health emergency and issued a federal quarantine order of 14 days for 195 Americans. Photo by Leigh Vogel/UPI | License Photo

May 26 (UPI) -- The Biden administration has called on the World Health Organization to conduct a second investigation into the origins of the coronavirus pandemic amid a renewed push for one from both scientists and politicians.

During the 74th World Health Assembly on Tuesday, Jeremy Konyndyk, a senior advisor at the U.S. Agency for International Development, called for "an expert-led, science-based and independent analysis" of the pandemic's start in Wuhan, China.

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"We underscore the importance of a robust, comprehensive and expert-led inquiry into the origins of COVID-19, which is central to ensuring we are prepared to mitigate and successfully respond to future outbreak and to prevent a future pandemic," he said.

The purpose of the study, he added, is not to assign blame "but to be grounded in science, find the origin of the virus and the outbreak to help us all prevent such a global catastrophe from ever happening again."

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The virus first emerged late in 2019 in the central Chinese city of Wuhan before infecting the world over, killing nearly 3.5 million people, according to a live map of the virus by Johns Hopkins University.

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More than a year later, a WHO team traveled to Wuhan to investigate its origins following months of Chinese pushback and claims that such a probe was unnecessary.

In March, that team published a report that said the virus likely infected humans from animal farms in Southeast Asia while stating the conspiracy theory that it escaped a virology lab in the city "was considered to be an extremely unlikely pathway."

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However, the study came under swift criticism over concerns that China did not grant the researchers full access to pertinent data, including early samples, and for delaying the study to begin.

WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told members states that China withheld data and that he didn't think the study "was extensive enough," while 14 nations, including the United States, called on the Asian nation to grant full access to the information.

Earlier this month, 18 scientists published a letter in the journal Science calling for more investigations, stating "[t]heories of accidental release from a lab and zoonotic spillover both remain viable" as there wasn't enough information to rule out the former.

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During the meeting Tuesday, U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra also called for an investigation.

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"Phase 2 of the COVID origins study must be launched with terms of reference that are transparent, science-based and give international experts the independence to fully assess the source of the virus and the early days of the outbreak," he said.

At a White House press briefing by the administration's COVID-19 Response Team and health officials, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told reporters the virus' origins are most likely natural but an investigation is needed because we don't know with certainty.

"Since this is a question that keeps being asked, we feel strongly -- all of us -- that we should continue with the investigation and go to the next phase of the investigation that the WHO had done," he said. "So, because we don't know 100 percent what the origin is, it's imperative that we look and we do an investigation."

Andy Slavitt, acting administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, added that they need to get an answer, they need China to be completely transparent and they need the WHO's assistance.

"We don't feel like we have that now," he said. "We need to get to the bottom of this, whatever that answer may be, and that's a critical priority for us."

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