Answers still missing after WHO China probe into Covid origins

Liang Wannian (L) and Peter Ben Embarek, both members of the WHO-China joint study team, shake hands at the WHO-China joint study press conference in Wuhan, central China's Hubei Province, 9 February 2021. (Source:Xinhua/Cheng Min)

A team of scientists dispatched by the World Health Organization (WHO) to shed new light on the origins of the pandemic dismissed a theory that the virus has been leaked from a Wuhan laboratory, saying it had “most likely” originated in animals.

Speaking at a press conference in Wuhan on Tuesday, a joint team of WHO and Chinese scientists, in Wuhan, said the transmission of the virus warrants further investigation.

The 14 scientists have spent the last two weeks investigating the origins of the outbreak by  visiting sites in the city of Wuhan, including the  Institute of Virology, the Centre for Disease Control, hospitals and markets. 

It was initially suspected that the virus came from animals sold at the Huanan Seafood Market and China’s CDC has since taken samples from the seafood market, suggesting that this is where the virus was spread rather than where it started.

Leading the WHO team, Dr Peter Ben Embarek,food safety expert explained “there is the potential to continue to follow this lead and further look at the supply chain and animals that were supplied to the markets in frozen and other processed and semi-processed form, or raw form.”

Wannian, told reporters that the disease may have originated from a zoonotic transmission, or from animals to humans, which has since evolved. Embarek echoed that it was “most likely’ the origins of the coronavirus points to a crossover from an intermediary species to 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,” said the WHO team leader.

The investigation, however, has not yet found the animal responsible for transferring the virus to humans and so far “the reservoir hosts remain to be identified” said Wannian. Bats and pangolins are potential candidates for the transmission, although the recovered samples from these species were not found to be “sufficiently similar” to the coronavirus, added Wannian.  

The preliminary results are a “work in progress,” and Embarek said the team had their sights on a reservoir of bats to explain the origins.

During the three-hour long conference the food safety expert said the findings so far “in terms of understanding what happened in the early days of December 2019, did [not] dramatically change the picture we had beforehand.”

However Embarek said that  the team’s understanding of the situation had improved and that the hypothesis will “require more studies and more specific targeted research.”

Virus leaked from Wuhan laboratory? Last year a theory perpetuated by former US president Donald Trump’s administration stated the coronavirus was leaked from the Wuhan Institute of Virology, although this  has persistently been denied by Chinese officials.

 “They’re the best ones to dismiss the claims and provide answers to all the questions,” Embarek said about laboratory scientists interviewed at the institute. “The laboratory incident hypothesis is extremely unlikely to explain the introduction of the virus into the human population,” he added.

The long-awaited visit comes after months of negotiations between the WHO and Chinese authorities, raising concerns over how much the team would be able to uncover, after more than a year passing by since the virus was first detected. 

When the mission was announced last month, the Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said: "The tracing of the virus origin will most likely involve multiple countries and localities."

 “We should really go and search for evidence of earlier circulation wherever that is,” Marion Koopmans on the WHO team added. As Wannian called for a global review believing there are “indications of missed circulation in other regions and gaps of reporting”.

In hopes to identify the origins of the coronavirus it is believed it could help understand how the outbreak started and prevent future pandemics. Since the virus was identified over 106 million have contracted it and has cost at least 2.3 million lives worldwide, according to data from WHO.

Dominic Dwyer, infectious disease expert and member of the WHO team said “it would probably take years to fully understand the origins of Covid-19.”