WHO team: Coronavirus unlikely to have leaked from China lab
By EMILY WANG FUJIYAMAtoday
1 of 11Marion Koopmans, right, and Peter Ben Embarek, center, of the World Health Organization team say farewell to their Chinese counterpart Liang Wannian, left, after a WHO-China Joint Study Press Conference held at the end of the WHO mission in Wuhan, China, Tuesday, Feb. 9, 2021. (AP Photo/Ng Han Guan)
WUHAN, China (AP) — The coronavirus most likely first appeared in humans after jumping from an animal, a team of international and Chinese scientists looking for the origins of COVID-19 said Tuesday, saying an alternate theory that the virus leaked from a Chinese lab was unlikely.
A closely watched visit by World Health Organization experts to Wuhan — the Chinese city where the first coronavirus cases were discovered — did not dramatically change the current understanding of the early days of the pandemic, said Peter Ben Embarek, the leader of the WHO mission.
But it did “add details to that story,” he said at a news conference as the group wrapped up a four-week visit to the city.
And it allowed the joint Chinese-WHO team to further explore the lab leak theory — which former U.S. President Donald Trump and officials from his administration had put forward without evidence — and decide it was unlikely. The Wuhan Institute of Virology is home to many different virus samples, leading to allegations that it may have been the source of the original outbreak, whether on purpose or accidentally.
Embarek, a WHO food safety and animal disease expert, said experts now consider the possibility of such a leak so improbable that it will not be suggested as an avenue of future study. But another team member, Danish scientist Thea Koelsen Fischer, told reporters that team members could not rule out the possibility of further investigation and new leads
China had already strongly rejected the possibility of a leak and has promoted other theories. The Chinese and foreign experts considered several ideas for how the disease first ended up in humans, leading to a pandemic that has now killed more than 2.3 million people worldwide.
Embarek said the initial findings suggest the most likely pathway the virus followed was from a bat to another animal and then to humans, adding that would require further research.
“The findings suggest that the laboratory incidents hypothesis is extremely unlikely to explain the introduction of the virus to the human population,” he said.
Asked why, Embarek 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 emphasized that, saying there was no sample of it in the Wuhan institute.
The mission was intended to be an initial step in the process of understanding the origins of the virus, which scientists have posited may have passed to humans through a wild animal, such as a pangolin or bamboo rat. Transmission directly from bats to humans or through the trade in frozen food products are also possibilities, Embarek said.
The WHO team’s visit is politically sensitive for Beijing, which is concerned about being blamed for alleged missteps in its early response to the outbreak. An AP investigation has found that the Chinese government put limits on research into the outbreak and ordered scientists not to speak to reporters. ADVERTISEMENT
Still, one member of the WHO team, British-born zoologist Peter Daszak, told The Associated Press 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.Full Coverage: Coronavirus pandemic
Koelsen Fischer said she did not get to see the raw data and had to rely on an analysis of the data that was presented to her. But she said that would be true in most countries.
U.S. State Department spokesman Ned Price said the U.S. looked forward to seeing the report and the underlying data from the WHO investigation.
The team — which includes experts from 10 countries who arrived on Jan. 14 — visited the Huanan Seafood Market, the site of an early cluster of cases in late 2019.
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. And 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.
She said the next step would be to look more closely at farms.
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.
The team found no evidence that the disease was spreading widely any earlier than the initial outbreak in the second half of December 2019.
“We haven’t been able to fully do the research, but there is no indication there were clusters before what we saw happen in the later part of December in Wuhan,” Liang said.
The visit by the WHO team took months to negotiate. China only agreed 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.
While China has weathered some localized resurgences of infection since getting the outbreak under control last year, life in Wuhan itself has largely returned to normal.
AP Interview: China granted WHO team full access in Wuhan
By EMILY WANG FUJIYAMA and SAM McNEIL
February 5, 2021
1 of 5FILE – In this Jan. 30, 2021, file photo, members of the World Health Organization team including Ken Maeda, center, Peter Daszak, third from left and Vladmir Dedkov, fourth from left, leave after attending an exhibition about the fight against the coronavirus in Wuhan in central China’s Hubei province. Daszak, part of the team investigating the origins of the coronavirus in Wuhan, says the Chinese side granted full access to all sites and personnel they requested to visit and meet with. (AP Photo/Ng Han Guan, File)
WUHAN, China (AP) — A member of the World Health Organization expert team investigating the origins of the coronavirus in Wuhan said the Chinese side granted full access to all sites and personnel they requested — a level of openness that even he hadn’t expected.
Peter Daszak told The Associated Press on Friday that team members had submitted a deeply considered list of places and people to include in their investigation and that no objections were raised.
“We were asked where we wanted to go. We gave our hosts a list … and you can see from where we’ve been, we’ve been to all the key places,” Daszak said. ADVERTISEMENThttps://2db0e20bb9b2edcef2e750701cf7e41b.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-37/html/container.html
“Every place we asked to see, everyone we wanted to meet. … So really good,” said the British-born zoologist, who is president of the NGO EcoHealth Alliance in New York City.
Daszak said the team has now concluded site visits and will spend the next few days trolling through data and consulting with Chinese experts before presenting a summary of their findings at a news briefing prior to their departure on Wednesday. More COVID-19 News:
“I can’t really say too much about what we’ve found yet because we’re at that exact point in time where the teams are coming together looking at different pathways, different issues,” he said.
He said questions include what were the first cases, what was the link with animals and what, if any, was the role of the so-called “cold chain” — the possibility the virus was brought into China on packaging from imported frozen food, an unproven theory that China has long put forward.
“And of course, we’re looking at every hypotheses that’s been out there and seeing where the data take us and do they point to any particular one,” Daszak said.
Daszak had high praise for Chinese experts, who had been preparing for the visit for months, particularly deputy director of the Wuhan Institute of Virology, Shi Zhengli, with whom he worked to track down the origins of sever acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, that originated in China and led to the 2003 outbreak.
Some, including people close to former President Donald Trump, had speculated the institute may have been the origin of the outbreak because of its large collection of bat virus specimens and that Chinese authorities were covering up the truth.
However, Daszak said they were met during their visit to the high-security institute with a level of openness even he hadn’t anticipated, and that suspicions surrounding it had been “politicized on a global scale.”ADVERTISEMENT
“The pressure for this institution I’m sure has been intense so it was really good to have, not just me, but this whole group of international experts be able to ask really insightful questions and also to have all the key people in the room when we did that,” Daszak said.
China has strongly denied the possibility of a leak from the lab and has promoted unproven theories that the virus may have originated elsewhere before being brought to Wuhan, including possibly on imported frozen food packaging.
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. 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.
Daszak said the team was also given wide access when visiting hospitals that treated patients in the initial outbreak at the end of 2019 and beginning of 2020.
“To meet the first clinicians who took in the first patients with COVID, that’s incredible … that you can talk to that person who dealt with that first case and ask her what she saw and ask questions,” Daszak said.
The same level of access was given at the Huanan Seafood Market that was linked to early case clusters, he said. That included meeting with vendors and market managers and touring the market with those who did the original environmental swabbing that produced signs of the virus even after the market had been closed down.
“So this is an in-depth, deep understanding of the sites and the people who were involved,” Daszak said.
Daszak said the investigation by the team, composed of experts from 10 nations, was simply an initial step and that it would likely take years to confirm the origins of the virus. Exhaustive research is needed to pin down an outbreak’s animal reservoir, including taking animal samples, genetic analysis and epidemiological studies.
The virus is widely suspected to have originated in bats, which also produced the SARS virus, before being passed to humans through an intermediary species, possibly a wild animal such as a pangolin or bamboo rat, considered an exotic delicacy by some in China. One possible cause is that a wildlife poacher might have passed the virus to traders who carried it to Wuhan but that has yet to be proven.
Among measures taken by China after the initial outbreak, Daszak had specific praise for the 76-day lockdown imposed on Wuhan, a city of 11 million, along with the almost total closure of wildlife markets and breeding farms nationwide.
China has since reported more than 89,000 cases and 4,600 deaths from COVID-19.
In recent months, China has largely eliminated cases of local transmission, with just six reported on Friday — five in the northeastern province of Heilongjiang and one in the eastern financial hub of Shanghai.
Although some social distancing restrictions have been eased, strict testing, quarantines, electronic monitoring and community lockdowns remain in force, while mask-wearing in public is almost universal.
McNeil reported from Beijing.