WHO expert says coronavirus leak from Chinese lab unlikely, most probably jumped to human via intermediary species
A World Health Organisation expert said on Tuesday the coronavirus is unlikely to have leaked from a Chinese lab and most probably jumped to humans via an intermediary species.
WHO food safety and animal diseases expert Peter Ben Embarek made the assessment in a summation of a WHO team’s investigation into the possible origins of the coronavirus in the central Chinese city of Wuhan, where the first cases were discovered in December 2019.
The Wuhan Institute of Virology has collected extensive virus samples, leading to unproven allegations that it may have caused the original outbreak by leaking the virus into the surrounding community.
China has strongly denied that possibility and has promoted unproven theories that the virus may have originated elsewhere.
The team is considering several theories for how the disease first ended up in humans.
“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,” Mr Embarek said.
“However, the findings suggest that the laboratory incidents hypothesis is extremely unlikely to explain the introduction of the virus to the human population.”
Transmission through the trade in frozen products was also a likely possibility, and will not be suggested as an avenue of future study, Mr Embarek said.
The WHO team, which includes experts from 10 countries, arrived in Wuhan from Singapore on January 14 and spent the first two weeks working by video conference from a hotel while in quarantine.
The visit is politically sensitive for Beijing. An AP investigation has found that the Chinese government put limits on research into the outbreak and prevents scientists from speaking to reporters.
The WHO team’s mission is intended to be an initial step delving into the origins of the virus, which is believed to have originated in bats before being passed to humans through another species of wild animal, such as a pangolin or bamboo rat, which is considered an exotic delicacy by some in China.
Transmission through the trade in frozen products was also a possibility, Mr Embarek said.
Another member of the WHO team told The Associated Press late last week that they enjoyed a greater level of openness than they had anticipated, and that they were granted full access to all sites and personnel they requested.
That expert, British-born zoologist Peter Daszak, said the team looked into issues including what the first cases were, the link with animals and what, if any, the role that imports of frozen food may have played – a theory that China has long put forward.
Along with the institute, the WHO team that includes experts from 10 nations has visited hospitals, research institutes, a traditional market tied to the outbreak and other sites.
The visit by the WHO team took months to negotiate after China only agreed to it amid massive international pressure at the World Health Assembly meeting last May, and Beijing has continued to deny calls for a strictly independent investigation.
Chinese authorities have kept a tight hold on information about the possible causes of the pandemic that has now sickened more than 105 million people and killed more than 2.2 million worldwide.