World Health Organization investigators said Tuesday they would no longer pursue research into whether the coronavirus leaked from a lab in Wuhan, China.
Peter Ben Embarek, a food safety and animal diseases expert, announced the decision during a press conference to wrap up a visit by an international team of WHO experts to the city where COVID-19 was first identified in December 2019.
Embarek said there was not enough evidence to support a hypothesis that the virus escaped from a Chinese biosafety laboratory in Wuhan – the Wuhan Institute of Virology – and that the WHO stood by its previous determination that COVID-19 most likely entered the human population through an intermediate animal.
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The WHO team has spent several weeks on a fact-finding mission in Wuhan. Experts from 10 nations have visited hospitals, research institutes and a wildlife market tied to the outbreak. However, the WHO’s fieldwork and other activities in Wuhan have been closely monitored by Chinese officials and security officers, and Beijing has repeatedly resisted called for a completely independent investigation into the origins of the virus.
“Did we change dramatically the picture we had beforehand? I don’t think so,” said Embarek, a Danish national who spoke on behalf of the WHO delegation during the press conference Tuesday. “Did we improve our understanding? Did we add details to that picture? Absolutely.”
No evidence has emerged to support suggestions that the coronavirus originated from a virology lab in Wuhan. The theory stems from circumstantial evidence from several disparate sources, including repeated assertions from former President Donald Trump and his political backers, who never cited specific evidence.
Speculation also emerged due to the Wuhan Institute of Virology’s relative proximity to the wildlife market in Wuhan where some of the first cases of the virus were traced.
A number of high-profile commentators have also noted that the Wuhan Institute of Virology is China’s most advanced biosafety lab and is known for its work researching coronaviruses in bats.
The Wuhan Institute of Virology also attracted negative attention because of China’s initial unwillingness to share information about some aspects of the outbreak.
Embarek said the WHO team’s work to uncover COVID-19’s origins pointed to a “natural reservoir” in bats. However, he said more work needed to be done because it was unclear whether this was in Wuhan itself. He said the WHO found no indication the virus was circulating in Wuhan before the first official cases were detected. Liang Wannian, a member of China’s Health Commission who also appeared in the press conference, said it’s possible COVID-19 originated somewhere else in China before arriving in Wuhan.
The WHO concluded the Wuhan wildlife market was an area where the virus began spreading rapidly but it was unable to determine how it first arrived there.
“The market probably was a setting where that kind of spread could have happened easily, but that’s not the whole story,” Embarek said.
Peter Daszak, a British-American member of the WHO team in Wuhan, previously told USA TODAY that “in peoples’ imaginations there might be this image of one person in a lab in China who drops a petri dish and that somehow leads to a massive outbreak. It’s just not like that. Every year there are millions of people going in bat caves and hunting and eating wildlife. It happens every day. They are being exposed to bat viruses every day. It only takes one of these people to go to a city, cough and spread a virus,” he said.
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