What is the WHO’s position on the theory that SARS-CoV-2 escaped from a laboratory?

The WHO does not yet have a clear position on the the virus originated and is calling for more evidence to confirm or reject the lab leak theory


You have sent us an article claiming that the World Health Organisation (WHO) “already recognizes that it is likely” that SARS-CoV-2 escaped from a laboratory in China, a theory known as ‘lab-leak’. It was not the WHO as institution, but Peter Ben Embarek, leader of the team of experts investigating the origin of the virus in China, who, in a Danish television documentary on the origin of coronavirus, said that among several likely hypotheses, a laboratory worker in wuhan could be patient zero of covid-19. The WHO does not yet have a clear position on the the virus originated and is calling for more evidence to confirm or reject the lab leak theory. Embarek made no reference to the idea that SARS-CoV-2 was made inside the research facility and maintains the more widely held hypothesis that the virus is of natural origin.

"The WHO already recognises that is “likely” that Covid escaped from a laboratory in China"

The origin of coronavirus has been a matter of debate since the beginning of the pandemic. To date, scientists have insisted in that the more likely is that the virus jumped from an animal to a person, but it is still not known, for example, if it arrived from the bat to the human being directly or it did so by means of an intermediate host, as happened with SARS (a wild cat) or happens form time to time with MERS (the camel).

Among all of the likely scenarios, there is the possibility that a laboratory worker in Wuhan was infected by a bat at the time of sampling. This has been raised by Peter Ben Embarek, head of the WHO expert delegation in Wuhan. In particular, the researcher has indicated in a Danish documentary that "the laboratory leak hypothesis actually covers several scenarios. One of them is that a lab employee gets infected in the field while collecting samples in a cave," he indicated.

These statements have triggered a wave of headlines claiming that "WHO already sees lab leak as likely" as a hypothesis for the origin of the coronavirus, but this is a misleading assumption. Embarek is not taking any scenario at face value: only one that involves human error or accident at the time of sampling. 

Without clear evidence to date

For the moment, the WHO has not taken a position on the origin of SARS-CoV-2, first detected from rare cases of pneumonia in the Chinese city of Wuhan in December 2019, so it continues to investigate it without ruling out any scenario: "Although the team has concluded that a laboratory leak is the least likely hypothesis, this requires further investigation, possibly with additional missions involving specialist experts, which I am ready to implement," Tedros Adhanom, WHO director, has insisted during a press conference in March 2021. 

Moreover, as Adelaida Sarukhan reminds Verificat, "there is no evidence to date to support the thesis of a laboratory accident according to several experts", since, among other things, "there is no record of a virus such as SARS-CoV-2 in the laboratory's archives", nor "failures in the laboratory's security measures could be detected". But also there are still questions to be answered within this line of research.

Two recent episodes have put the spotlight back on the laboratory escape hypothesis, rather than its artificial manufacture, as suggested by other theories with less support in the scientific community. The first is the recent relocation of a laboratory that has worked with bats to a position very close to Wuhan's Huanan market, the epicentre of the pandemic in the first weeks of December 2019. Second, the reluctance by the Chinese authorities to share data from the centres with the WHO on its visit to Wuhan. In fact, they have already denied a second visit.

A "human failure" or a "translation error"

Embarek's statements, which have been echoed by media around the world, were initially taken from the documentary the Virus Mystery, on Danish public television channel TV2.

In a first report, published in April, scientists had indicated that the laboratory escape hypothesis was “highly unlikely”, but during the interview, Embarek clarified that it would be another thing if a technician in a Wuhan laboratory contracted the virus after collecting samples from the real world, which is, in his view, likely: "An employee who became infected while taking samples falls under one of the likely hypotheses. This is where the virus jumps directly from a bat to a human. In that case, it would be a lab worker, rather than a random villager or other person who has regular contact with bats," indicates Embarek.

In other words, for him it may have all been a "human failure" (he never refers to the manufacture of an artificial virus), something he does not think the Chinese authorities want to admit: "The whole system is very focused on being perfect, and everything has to be perfect," he points out. 

To confirm all these assertions, the Washington Post contacted Embarek directly, but the scientist claimed that the information circulated about the documentary was "an incorrect translation of a Danish article", refusing to comment further and referring the newspaper directly to the WHO. In turn, WHO spokesperson Tarik Jasarevic insisted that the commentary was mistranslated and that the interview had taken place "months ago".

The other Wuhan laboratory

So far, the hypothesis of the lab leak has revolved around the Wuhan Institute of Virology, but it is not the only one in the city that conducts research on bats. One kilometre from the Huanan market there is one of the Wuhan Centres for Disease Control (CDC). These two institutes were the only ones WHO workers had access to when they travelled to the city, according to Embarek in the TV2 article in the documentary. 

The scientist adds that the centre’s last publication on backs date back to 2013, "but that doesn't mean they haven't worked on bats since then". He adds: "From what we understand, they work mainly with parasites and not so much with viruses, so they have been working with bat parasites. 

During a visit to the site, he says in the documentary, technicians informed him that they had moved into the facility on 2 December 2019: "That's when it all started, and you know when you move a lab, it's disruptive to everything," he says, although he insists that more information needs to be gathered about what has happened if one wants to know more about the role the CDC lab may have played.

Awaiting for further studies

The WHO has not acknowledged that it is "likely" that SARS-CoV-2 (not covid-19, as some websites say, which is the disease that causes the virus and therefore cannot be escaped) came out of a laboratory in China. First, it is an assessment that has been made through a television documentary, not officially, and the protagonist himself has publicly disassociated himself from it. And secondly, what the scientist sees as probable is that it was a human error at the time of sampling by a technician, which can be interpreted as either a laboratory leak or direct contact between the bat and a human being. 

The WHO's position, for the time being, has not changed.