A group of World Health Organisation experts who have spent the past four weeks in Wuhan have poured cold water over the controversial theory Covid-19 was leaked from a lab there – however could not categorically rule it out.
The team of scientists spoke of their first findings on Tuesday evening, revealing a firm belief the virus transmitted from a bat to another animal and then to humans, with the first step of that process likely outside of Wuhan and possibly across the Chinese border.
Peter Ben Embarek, the leader of the WHO mission and a food safety and animal disease expert, dismissed the baseless theories the virus may have been intentionally or unintentionally leaked from the Wuhan Institute of Virology – a concept repeatedly and wildly peddled by former US President Donald Trump and former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
“The findings suggest that the laboratory incidents hypothesis is extremely unlikely to explain the introduction of the virus to the human population,” Dr Embarek said.
He said accidental releases are extremely rare and that the team’s review of the Wuhan institute’s lab operations indicated it would be hard for anything to escape from it.
He also noted that there were no reports of this virus in any lab anywhere before the pandemic. Liang Wannian, the head of the Chinese side, also emphasised that, saying there was no sample of it in the Wuhan institute.
However one member of the team, Danish scientist Thea Koelsen Fischer, told reporters that they could not rule out the possibility of further investigation and new leads.
Focus of investigations now outside of Wuhan
The team visited the Huanan Seafood Market, the site of an early cluster of cases in late 2019 that became synonymous with the early days of the pandemic.
Marion Koopmans, a Dutch virologist on the team, said that some animals at the market were susceptible or suspected to be susceptible to the virus, including rabbits and bamboo rats.
She said some could be traced to farms or traders in regions that are home to the bats that carry the closest related virus to the one that causes Covid-19 and the next step would be to look more closely at farms.
Team member Dr Peter Daszak told the BBC that would involve investigations right across South East Asia.
“We've done a lot of work in China and if you map that back it starts to point towards the border and we know that there is very little surveillance on the other side in the whole region of South East Asia," he said.
"China is a very big place and South East Asia is a very big place.
“The supply chains to the Huanan seafood market were extensive, they were coming in from other countries, they were coming in from various parts of China, so to really trace that back it's going to take some work."
Liang, the head of the Chinese team, said the virus also appeared to have been spreading in parts of the city other than the market, so it remains possible that the virus originated elsewhere.
Beijing and state media in China has repeatedly pushed a theory the virus originated outside of China as the Communist Party of China looks to deflect allegations it mishandled the pandemic in its infancy.
The visit by the WHO team took months to negotiate with China only agreeing to it amid international pressure at the WHO’s World Health Assembly meeting last May, and Beijing has continued to resist calls for a strictly independent investigation.
The team said it was unlikely the virus was circulating in Wuhan before late December 2019 while the theory the virus was imported on frozen goods needs to be investigated further.
Harvard University research previously said search engine activity on symptoms similar to Covid-19 in the Wuhan area spiked months before.
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