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WHO presents findings from Wuhan on origins of Covid pandemic

An international team of scientists led by the World Health Organization said on Tuesday the coronavirus “most likely” originated in animals before spreading to humans and dismissed a theory that the disease was spread by a laboratory in the Chinese city of Wuhan.

Scientists have been working in Wuhan, where the disease has been identified, for four weeks as part of their search for clues to the origins of the Covid-19 pandemic. The long-awaited investigation comes after months of negotiations between China and the WHO over the terms of the investigation. The delay raises questions about the reliability of the results.

Investigators visited hospitals, laboratories and markets, including the Huanan Seafood Market, the Wuhan Institute of Virology and the laboratory of the Wuhan Center for Disease Control.

The visit, which was shrouded in secrecy, was also to see the researchers speak to first responders as well as some of the first patients. The team has finished two weeks of quarantine before starting to visit local sites.

Dr Peter Ben Embarek, WHO food safety and animal disease specialist and chair of the investigation team, told reporters that the “likeliest” route for Covid was through interbreeding with humans from an intermediate species. This hypothesis “will require more studies and more specific (and) targeted research,” he said.

Initial survey results found no evidence of large Covid outbreaks in Wuhan or anywhere else before December 2019. However, researchers found evidence of wider circulation of Covid outside the seafood market from Huanan that month, Ben Embarek said.

He added that it was not yet possible to identify the intermediate animal host of the coronavirus, describing the findings after nearly a month of meetings and site visits as “work in progress”.

“In terms of understanding what happened in early December 2019, have we drastically changed the image we had before? I don’t think so,” Ben Embarek said.

“Have we improved our understanding? Have we added details to this story? Absolutely,” he said.

The WHO has sought to manage expectations of a definitive conclusion to the origins of the Covid pandemic. To put the mission in a larger context, it took more than a decade to find the origins of SARS, while the origins of Ebola – first identified in the 1970s – are still not yet known.

It is hoped that information on the first known cases of coronavirus, first detected in Wuhan in late 2019, could help identify how the outbreak began and prevent future pandemics.

An “extremely unlikely” laboratory leak

A theory that the coronavirus was leaked by the Wuhan Institute of Virology has been debunked by WHO investigators. The assumption had been perpetuated by the administration of former President Donald Trump, without the weight of evidence, and vigorously denied by Chinese officials.

“The hypothesis of a laboratory incident is extremely unlikely to explain the introduction of the virus into the human population,” Ben Embarek said. “Therefore, [it] is not in the hypotheses that we will propose for future studies.”

The team had come to the conclusion that a lab leak should be considered extremely unlikely “based on serious discussion and very diligent research”, added Liang Wannian, head of the Covid expert group. to the Chinese National Health Commission.

Mink are seen at a farm in Gjol, northern Denmark, October 9, 2020.

HENNING BAGGER | Scanpix Ritzau | AFP via Getty Images

Speaking alongside Ben Embarek of the Hilton Optics Valley hotel in Wuhan, Liang said ongoing research into the origins of the virus must focus on how it circulated in animals before infecting humans. .

Bats and pangolins are potential transmission candidates, Liang said, but samples from those species were not found to be “similar enough” to the coronavirus.

The high susceptibility of mink and cats to the virus indicates that there may be other animals that serve as reservoirs, Liang said, but the research remains inconclusive.

The spokesperson for China’s National Health Commission said there may have been unreported circulation of the coronavirus before it was detected in Wuhan. However, Liang said there was no evidence of substantial Covid circulation in Wuhan before the outbreak in late 2019.

International concern

The WHO has already cited genetic sequencing that showed the coronavirus started in bats and likely jumped to another animal before infecting humans.

Many people who had fallen ill with the new virus in Wuhan, a city of around 11 million people, were said to have had links to the Huanan Seafood Market.

Scientists initially suspected the virus came from wild animals sold in the seafood market, prompting China to swiftly restrict public access to the market early last year.

China’s CDC has since said samples taken from the seafood market suggest it was a place where the virus spread, not where the outbreak first emerged.

On Tuesday, Liang said the Huanan seafood market was one of the places where the coronavirus first emerged, but he added that it was not possible, with current evidence, to determine how the virus was introduced to the seafood market.

Security personnel stand guard outside the Wuhan Institute of Virology in Wuhan as members of the World Health Organization (WHO) team investigating the origins of the COVID-19 coronavirus stand visit the institute in Wuhan in the central province of Hubei in China on February 3, 2021.

Hector Retamal | AFP | Getty Images

The origins of the coronavirus remain important as the virus is constantly evolving, as demonstrated by highly infectious mutant strains identified in the UK and South Africa.

More than 106 million people have contracted the coronavirus worldwide, killing at least 2.32 million people, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University.

The United States, by far, has reported the highest number of confirmed Covid cases and deaths, with more than 27 million reported infections and 465,072 deaths.

China has released little information about its research into the origins of the virus, and there has been widespread international concern about what Wuhan researchers will be allowed to see and do as part of their investigation.

—CNBC Evelyn Cheng contributed to this report.

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