Report from WHO team finds virus likely jumped from animals, not from lab leak

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A report from a team of international experts convened by the World Health Organization (WHO) finds that the coronavirus most likely jumped from animals to humans and calls a lab leak theory “extremely unlikely.”

The report, written jointly with Chinese scientists, does not reach a definitive conclusion on one origin but called it “a likely to very likely pathway” that the virus started in bats or another animal, then jumped to another animal before going to humans.

Going directly from the bat to humans is also “possible to likely,” the report said.

But the lab incident theory, which gained ground in recent days after being backed by former Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Robert Redfield, was viewed as “extremely unlikely.”

Still, the U.S. government and some outside experts have raised doubts about the independence of the report and whether the Chinese government was fully forthcoming with information. 

“We’ve got real concerns about the methodology and the process that went into that report, including the fact that the government in Beijing apparently helped to write it,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on CNN on Sunday.

The report also does not reach a definite conclusion on the role of the market in Wuhan, China, that has been linked to early cases.

“No firm conclusion therefore about the role of the Huanan market in the origin of the outbreak, or how the infection was introduced into the market, can currently be drawn,” the report states, noting that some early cases were not associated with the market. 

WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said in a statement in response to the report that the WHO is not ruling out any theories on the origin of the virus and more study is needed.

“As far as WHO is concerned, all hypotheses remain on the table,” Tedros said. “This report is a very important beginning, but it is not the end. We have not yet found the source of the virus, and we must continue to follow the science and leave no stone unturned as we do.”

Notably, Tedros also said he wants more investigation into the lab leak hypothesis, saying the team’s work was not “extensive enough” on that question.

“Although the team has concluded that a laboratory leak is the least likely hypothesis, this requires further investigation, potentially with additional missions involving specialist experts, which I am ready to deploy,” Tedros said.

Asked about the lab hypothesis during a press conference on Tuesday, Peter Ben Embarek, the WHO official leading the team, did not rule it out, noting there are labs in Wuhan that were many people’s first guess when the virus originated.

“Even the staff in these labs told us that was their first reaction when they heard about this new emerging disease, or new coronavirus, it is something coming out of our labs or work,” he said. “They all went back to their records and worked to try to find out if there was a leak, but nobody could find any trace of something similar to this virus in their records or their samples.”

“Nobody has been able to pick up any firm argument or proof or evidence that these labs or any of these labs would have been involved in a lab leak accident,” he added.

Asked about pressure from the Chinese government on the report’s conclusions, Embarek said: “Of course there was political pressure from all sides, also outside China, but I think we were able to create a space for the science.”

Updated at 11:46 a.m.

Tags Animal-human transmission Antony Blinken Coronavirus coronavirus origins COVID-19 lab testing Robert Redfield WHO World Health Organization
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