A senior Tory MP has claimed that a report on the origins of coronavirus from the World Health Organization (WHO) “should be taken with a pinch of salt” due to China’s influence on the findings.
The WHO-led team, which spent four weeks in and around Wuhan earlier this year to investigate how the pandemic began, released its final report on Tuesday.
The investigation concluded that it was “extremely unlikely” the virus began in a laboratory and that a "likely to very likely" pathway was a spillover to humans through an intermediate animal host.
But former Conservative leader Iain Duncan Smith criticised the process that led to these conclusions, saying the report was “not an independent investigation”.
He told TalkRadio: “The WHO is in need of major, major surgery because at the critical moment it failed."
He added: “China knew about human-human transfer in December, that is absolutely clear – quite early on in December too,” and said China did not tell the WHO it had an epidemic until late January.
Duncan Smith, who is among the UK officials recently sanctioned by China, also said the WHO team were limited by what they could investigate, because China did not allow them into laboratories.
He said: “This report is not an independent investigation. It is what the Chinese have allowed them to do. So all of this I’m afraid needs to be taken with a pinch of salt.”
The WHO report said no firm conclusion could be made on whether the virus began at Wuhan’s Huanan seafood market, which had been identified as somewhere the virus first started spreading among humans in December 2019.
Watch: 'All hypotheses remain on the table' in search for source of coronavirus
The team did not rule out the possibility that virus circulation in other countries pre-dated the Wuhan outbreak.
It also ruled that the virus could have been transmitted through cold-chain food packaging – a theory that the Chinese government and its state media have reportedly been pushing as part of an argument that it may not have originated in the country.
US secretary of state Anthony Blinken told CNN his country has “real concerns about the methodology and the process” behind the WHO report, adding that the Chinese government “apparently helped to write it.”
Last week, Robert Redfield, who led the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention during the first year of the pandemic, said he thinks coronavirus originated in a Wuhan lab, reiterating a theory embraced by former president Donald Trump.
Meanwhile, WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus admitted on Tuesday that data was withheld from the team of investigators.
Speaking at a press conference about the report’s release, he said: “In my discussions with the team, they expressed the difficulties they encountered in accessing raw data. I expect future collaborative studies to include more timely and comprehensive data sharing."
One of the team’s investigators had already said that China refused to give them raw data on early COVID cases, potentially complicating efforts to understand how the global pandemic began.
The report’s conclusions on the virus origins remain incomplete, which likely means tensions over how the pandemic started – and whether China has helped or hinder efforts to find out, as the US has alleged – will continue.
Tory peer Matt Ridley called the report a “pure whitewash” and criticised the process of the investigation.
He told TalkRadio: “The members of the investigation were agreed by the Chinese authorities. They relied on Chinese scientists' work, they didn’t do any work themselves. They were heavily chaperoned. They didn’t ask very searching questions while they were there. So we were expecting a whitewash and a whitewash is what we got.
Watch: COVID-19: 'Extremely unlikely' coronavirus came from Wuhan lab as evidence