WHO investigators discount possibility coronavirus emerged from Wuhan lab, leaving many questions unanswered
World Health Organization (WHO) investigators said it’s “extremely unlikely” that COVID-19 leaked from a laboratory in Wuhan, China, and their latest report on the virus’s origins endorsed questionable statements by Chinese officials, to the dismay of many independent scientists worldwide.
An international team of 14 WHO scientists visited live-animal markets, laboratories and disease-control centers over 12 days in late January and early February 2021 before embracing a theory by Chinese health officials that the virus might have spread to humans via shipments of frozen foods, according to The New York Times newspaper. Outside China, scientists remain skeptical of that possibility.
“Our initial findings suggest that the introduction through an intermediary host species is the most likely pathway and one that will require more studies and more specific targeted research,” said Dr. Peter Ben Embarek, a WHO investigator serving as the head of the mission, according to NBC News.
Embarek said that a theory suggesting the virus leaked from a Wuhan laboratory is “extremely unlikely to explain the introduction of the virus into the human population. Therefore, [it] is not in the hypotheses that we will suggest for future studies.”
U.S. State Department spokesman Ned Price said the United States intends to independently verify the WHO’s findings once its reports are complete.
“Clearly, the Chinese, at least heretofore, have not offered the requisite transparency that we need and that, just as importantly, the international community needs so that we can prevent these sorts of pandemics from ever happening again,” Price told reporters. “We will work with our partners, and also draw on information collected and analyzed by our own intelligence community … rather than rush to conclusions that may be motivated by anything other than science.”
WHO officials have yet to identify the animal intermediary host of the virus, said Embarek, who called the investigation a “work in progress.” Scientists said they eliminated the laboratory theory based on “serious discussion and very diligent research,” said Liang Wannian, head of the expert COVID-19 panel at China’s National Health Commission, according to CNBC. While scientists have uncovered new information, Embarek said it has not dramatically changed the picture of the outbreak. (Pictured: World Health Organization scientist Dr. Peter Ben Embarek, right, and Liang Wannian, head of the expert COVID-19 panel at China’s National Health Commission, speak during a news conference in Wuhan, China, in February 2021.)
“In terms of understanding what happened in the early days of December 2019, did we change dramatically the picture we had beforehand? I don’t think so,” Embarek said, according to CNBC. “Did we improve our understanding? Did we add details to that story? Absolutely.”
Scientists have no indication that the virus was circulating in Wuhan before the first official cases were identified there in December 2019.
“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 Southeast Asia,” said Dr. Peter Daszak, a member of the WHO team, according to the BBC. Daszak suggested that the focus on the coronavirus’s origins could shift to Southeast Asia.
“China is a very big place and Southeast Asia is a very big place,” Daszak said. “The supply chains to the Huanan Seafood Market [in Wuhan] 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.”
The U.S. has pushed back on Chinese assertions that the virus originated anywhere else and remains concerned that the Chinese Communist Party may have swayed the WHO’s findings.
“Across the board, the United States believes as a general matter, when we’re at the table, we can help shape events. And when we’re not in the WHO, we don’t have any influence that it is functioning the way it’s intended to function,” Price told reporters, underscoring U.S. President Joe Biden’s decision to rejoin the United Nations agency. “We are talking in this case about the origin of the coronavirus. I don’t think there is any reasonable person who would argue that the coronavirus originated elsewhere.”
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