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People wearing face masks walk on a street, following a sandstorm in Shanghai, China on March 30, 2021.ALY SONG/Reuters

As a third wave of COVID-19 sweeps across Europe, forcing slow-to-vaccinate countries to tighten lockdowns they had hoped to have lifted entirely by now, we are still nowhere close to arriving at a final toll for the worst pandemic in a century. Case counts are peaking again in Brazil and India and it is only a matter of days before the total number of COVID-19 deaths surpasses the three-million mark globally. This is a human tragedy of epic proportions.

Canada now appears to be at the beginning of a third wave of the pandemic that threatens to stall reopening plans and send front-line health care workers back beyond the point of exhaustion. After more than a year living under the yoke of sanitary restrictions that have negatively impacted their livelihoods and mental well-being, Canadians must brace for a longer slog yet as provincial vaccination efforts are outrun by more contagious COVID-19 variants.

Every effort must be made to identify the origin of SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that unleashed the horror of the past year on humankind. Knowing where the virus originated and how it first spread to humans is perhaps the most critical piece of the puzzle in preventing future pandemics of this nature. This is not about casting blame, even if some politicians might seek to do that. It is about honouring the dead and protecting the living.

China, sadly, appears uninterested in sharing what it knows with the rest of the world. In the wake of the release of a World Health Organization report on the origins of SARS-CoV-2, Canada joined the United States and 12 other countries in dismissing the report as incomplete and calling for “transparent and independent analysis and evaluation, free from interference and undue influence.” The European Union issued a separate but similar statement.

China’s Communist government stalled the launch of the WHO investigation until the beginning of this year, more than twelve months after the first cases of a mysterious respiratory illness popped up in Wuhan. When a team of 17 WHO investigators were finally allowed to visit China in January, they were not given access to raw data, but rather only to research provided to them by Chinese scientists employed by the government.

The 120-page WHO report released on Tuesday said that it was “likely to very likely” that SARS-CoV-2 spread from bats to an intermediary mammal host – such as pangolins – before being passed on to humans. But it played down the suggestions that the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market in Wuhan – where live animals were sold for human consumption – was where the virus was first transmitted to people.

The report said it was “extremely unlikely” that the virus escaped from a Wuhan lab known to have worked on coronaviruses, leading to pushback from scientists who said that the hypothesis of a lab accident has not been yet investigated thoroughly enough to rule it out.

It is easy to understand why the Chinese government, for which transparency is a dirty word, would quash an investigation into whether SARS-CoV-2 escaped from either the Wuhan Institute of Virology or the Wuhan Center for Disease Control and Prevention. While lab leaks can happen everywhere, it would be a colossal blow to Chinese pride to have to admit that the worst global pandemic since the 1918 Spanish flu was the result of human error.

The internet is awash in conspiracy theories suggesting that the coronavirus was released intentionally from a Chinese lab. Former U.S. president Donald Trump even countenanced the idea. The head of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control on Mr. Trump’s watch, Robert Redfield, last week said he also believed the virus escaped from a Chinese lab, though likely accidentally.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki was naturally eager to steer clear of associating her boss, President Joe Biden, with the conspiracy theories of his predecessor. Even so, she suggested on Tuesday that the hypothesis of a lab leak requires further investigation and criticized Chinese authorities for preventing that investigation from occurring.

“They have not been transparent,” she said of the Chinese. “They have not provided underlying data … You know, the analysis performed to date from our experts – their concern is that there isn’t additional support for one hypothesis.”

Even WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, who has spent much of the pandemic as an apologist for China, was forced to call for “further study” of the lab leak hypothesis after his agency’s report was roundly rejected as inadequate, saying “as far as WHO is concerned, all hypotheses remain on the table. This report is a very important beginning, but it is not the end. We have not yet found the source of the virus, and we must continue to follow the science and leave no stone unturned as we do.”

The world deserves China’s full co-operation. Sadly, it is unlikely to ever get it.

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