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WHO experts rule out lab leak theory

February 10, 2021 05:24 AM


WHO experts rule out lab leak theory
Investigators say the coronavirus most likely jumped to humans through an animal host or frozen wildlife products

HT Correspondent

Wuhan/Beijing : A World Health Organization (WHO) investigation in China has found that the coronavirus most likely jumped to humans through an animal host or frozen wildlife products, finding that it’s “extremely unlikely” it came from a laboratory leak.

No further research is needed to look into the theory about a leak, Peter Ben Embarek, a WHO official, told reporters on Tuesday at a briefing in Wuhan, the city where Covid-19 first mushroomed at the end of 2019. That speculation has been promulgated by former US president Donald Trump and some others.

The virus could have been introduced to the Huanan wet market in Wuhan, which many of the first Covid-19 patients were linked to, by a person who was infected or by a product that was sold there, Ben Embarek said. “Among the more interesting products were frozen wildlife animals,” he said. “Some of these species are known to be susceptible to these kinds of viruses.”

The mission followed months of negotiation with a defensive China to facilitate and cooperate with the probe. Stung by criticism that it initially covered up the extent of the crisis, Chinese state media and officials have promoted the theory that the virus didn’t start in China, but was brought in. The WHO’s validation of a potential cold-chain transmission route is likely to bolster those efforts.

The team studied tens of thousands of patient samples from Wuhan prior to the emergence of sick people in 2019. There was no evidence of significant outbreaks in China before December 2019, WHO officials said.

The lack of a clear pathway from bats to humans had stoked speculation - refuted by many scientists - that the virus might have escaped from the Wuhan Institute of Virology, home to a maximum bio-containment laboratory that studies bat-borne coronaviruses.

Members of the WHO mission visited the lab last week and asked Shi Zhengli, who has collected and analysed these viruses for more than a decade, about the research and the earliest known coronavirus cases. “We embarked on a detailed and profound search for other cases that may have been missed early on in 2019,” said Ben Embarek. “The conclusion was we did not find evidence of large outbreaks that could be related to cases of Covid-19 prior to December 2019 in Wuhan or elsewhere.”

The panel, comprising 17 Chinese and 17 international experts, looked for clues to understand how Sars-CoV-2 - whose closest known relative came from bats 1,000 miles away - spread explosively in Wuhan before causing the worst contagion in more than a century.

Liang Wannian, an expert with China’s National Health Commission, said there had been no substantial spread of the virus in the city before late 2019 outbreak. “This indicates the possibility of the missed reported circulation in other regions,” Liang, the Chinese lead of the team convened by the WHO, said. Liang said the team believes the virus originated in an animal, “but the reservoir host remains to be identified”.

With inputs from agencies

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