Story at a glance

  • A team of scientists contradict a theory that COVID-19 emerged from a lab.
  • Scientists noted the exact origins of the virus demand more research.

COVID-19 is “extremely unlikely” to have originated from any type of laboratory or facility, the specialty task force composed by the World Health Organization (WHO), said on Tuesday.

Researchers traveled to Wuhan China, the first epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic, on behalf of the WHO. They discussed their initial findings after working on the ground to retrace the steps of the outbreak.

Peter Ben Embarek from the WHO says it’s mostly likely that the virus had jumped from animals to humans, affirming what many scientists believe is the origin of COVID-19. Their research also indicates that the first cases were documented in December 2019 and were linked to a seafood market in Wuhan, while additional cases emerged from other sources as well. 

But scientists say it’s still unknown how the virus was first brought to the seafood market. 

“It is not possible on the basis of the current epidemiological information to determine how the SARS-COV2 was introduced into the market,” the team confirmed. 

While the virus is similar to other zoonotic viruses that transmit from certain animals to humans, including bats, researchers from the WHO team couldn’t identify the presence of COVID-19 in either local bat populations or other Chinese wildlife. 

Despite the lack of evidence pointing to wet markets as the explicit source of COVID-19, the team also visited the nearby Wuhan Institute of Virology. 

Embarek added that there’s still work to be done to determine the origin of the virus that has killed more than 2.3 million people worldwide. 

"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," Embarek said at the conference. “All the work that has been done on the virus and trying to identify its origin continue to point towards natural reservoir of this virus, and similar viruses, in bat population.”

Researchers did note that the virus was able to survive in a variety of temperatures and environments — both cold and humid temperatures — which revives the theory that the virus spread rapidly on frozen food shipments.

This theory, however, is contradictory to how COVID-19 is transmitted, which is primarily through air droplets. Experts have previously said that the COVID-19 cell structure does not support its survival in a given environment for a long period of time.

Embarek added that investigating some farmed wildlife animal products at the seafood market in Wuhan, in addition to the frozen foods, could help reveal if COVID-19 was introduced through an animal from another province.

Published on Feb 10, 2021