Covid lab leak theory needs further investigation, World Health Organization head says

People in lab suits outside the hotel where the WHO investigative team were stationed

Delays in the publication of the findings, drafted in collaboration with the team's Chinese counterparts, had been blamed on coordination and translation issues, even as a diplomatic tug-of-war raged in the background over the report's contents.

In sharp contrast, people in England were set for what newspapers dubbed "Happy Monday", with stay-at-home orders relaxed as rapid vaccinations appeared to drive down infection rates there. As noted by the AP, it can take years to determine the exact origin of virus outbreaks.

The final report, a joint WHO-China study, which AFP obtained Monday ahead of its official release, spelled out how the joint team of Chinese scientists and worldwide experts thrashed out the hierarchy of probability.

The report is based largely on a visit by a World Health Organization team of worldwide experts to Wuhan, the Chinese city where Covid-19 was first detected, from mid-January to mid-February.

The repeated delays sparked renewed criticism of the United Nations health agency's slow actions in getting the team to Wuhan in the first place.

In January, the World Health Organization sent a group of more than twenty scientists to Wuhan to investigate the origins of the coronavirus infection.

In the 15 months since the coronavirus emerged, the pandemic has engulfed the planet, killing almost 2.8 million people and pummelling the global economy.

Meanwhile, local officials around the country have tested hundreds of thousands of imported food samples, publishing alerts whenever a sample tests positive for traces of the coronavirus.

People in Britain rushed to pools and parks Monday to enjoy newfound freedoms as the government peeled back restrictions there, allowing small groups to gather, or sports activities to resume.

But the highly-anticipated document offered few firm conclusions.

The WHO team's leader, Peter Ben Embarek, told a separate virtual press briefing on Tuesday that it was "perfectly possible" COVID-19 cases were circulating in November or October 2019 around Wuhan, potentially leading to the disease spreading overseas earlier than documented so far.

Dutch virologist and team member Marion Koopmans rejected the focus on the unanswered questions, stressing on Twitter that the experts had presented a huge amount of information.

But the report does provide more detail on the reasoning behind the researchers' conclusions.

The experts worked to rank a number of hypotheses on the pandemic origins according to how likely they were. It also states that the three laboratories that were investigated in Wuhan "all had high quality biosafety level facilities" and "no serological evidence of infection in workers through Sars-CoV-2-specific serology-screening".

The team concluded the virus was most likely to have been passed from bats via an "intermediate animal host" to humans before sparking an "explosive outbreak" in Wuhan in December 2019. Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus confirmed that he had received the report.

"The scenario, including introduction through an intermediary host, was considered to be likely to very likely", it said.

Dr Anthony Fauci, the top U.S. infectious diseases expert, said he would like to see the report's raw information first before deciding about its credibility.

The Chinese government's interference with the World Health Organization's probe into the virus' origins and China's extreme lack of transparency have cast doubt on the validity of the soon-released report's findings.

They evaluated direct spread from bats to humans as likely, and said that spread to humans from the packaging of "cold-chain" food products was possible but not likely.

The Telegraph reports that the WHO's assessment goes on to say it is "extremely unlikely" that the virus originated from an accident with an infected laboratory staff member.

China has been trying to deflect criticism of its handling of the pandemic amid growing scrutiny over the pathogen's origins, including speculation promoted by the former Trump administration that the SARS-CoV-2 virus leaked from a Wuhan lab. "The Wuhan CDC lab which moved on 2 December 2019 reported no disruptions or incidents caused by the move".

The possibility that Covid-19 escaped from one of the virus laboratories in Wuhan was deemed "extremely unlikely", although it was not completely ruled out.



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