WHO Team Finds It ‘Extremely Unlikely’ COVID-19 Virus Started in Lab

Peter Ben Embarek, a member of the World Health Organization (WHO) holds a chart during a WHO-China joint study news conference in Wuhan, China, February 9, 2021. (Aly Song/Reuters)

A World Health Organization team investigating the origins of the COVID-19 virus in Wuhan, China announced Tuesday that the virus was likely spread from an animal to humans, calling a theory that the virus was released in a lab accident “extremely unlikely.” 

“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,” WHO food safety and animal diseases expert Peter Ben Embarek said.

“However, the findings suggest that the laboratory incidents hypothesis is extremely unlikely to explain the introduction of the virus to the human population,” Embarek said. “Therefore it is not a hypothesis that we advise to suggest future studies … into the understanding of the origin of the virus.”

Health experts the world over have said that the novel coronavirus likely originated in Wuhan, China in November 2019. Scientists in recent months have questioned whether the virus originated at a live animal market in Wuhan or was the result of a lab accident at one of the city’s two laboratories — the Wuhan Institute of Virology and the Wuhan Centers for Disease Control — that had been studying coronaviruses that originated in bats.

China has argued that the virus did not start within its borders and instead has peddled other theories that the virus may have originated elsewhere.

The WHO team, which draws on experts from 10 countries, is considering several theories for how the disease first ended up in humans. The team’s work is meant to be an initial step in investigating the origins of the virus, which is believed to have originated in bats before being passed to humans via another species of wild animal, such as a pangolin or bamboo rat.

Transmission through the trade in frozen products is also a likely possibility, according to Embarek.

China has worked hard to control the narrative surrounding the virus, punishing citizen journalists who spoke out against the government’s explanation of events. The government has also controlled all research in the country into the origins of the virus, according to the Associated Press. 

In April, then-President Donald Trump halted U.S. government funding for WHO while the administration launched a review of the organization’s handling of the pandemic. He accused the group of “severely mismanaging and covering up the spread of coronavirus.”

However, President Joe Biden has vowed to reinstate funding for WHO.

Late last month as the team’s investigation began Michael Ryan, the executive director of WHO’s health emergencies program, said that it was “definitely too early” to conclude that the coronavirus first started in China and that “all hypotheses are on the table.”

“I think we have to say this quite plainly; all hypotheses are on the table and it is definitely too early to come to a conclusion of exactly where this virus started either within or without China,” Ryan said at a press conference in Geneva in response to a question regarding the head of China’s CDC’s claims that the virus had not originated in the country.

Ryan said virus discovered in sewage and blood tests outside of China could indicate “earlier infection.” 

“Let’s step back, let’s follow the evidence, let’s follow the science. Our team are on the ground, they’re having a good experience working with our Chinese colleagues. We’re working through the data. The data will lead us to the next phase, where we need to go next to look at the origins of this virus,” Ryan said.

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