Lab Leak of COVID ‘Extremely Unlikely,’ WHO Experts Say in China

A WHO-led trip to Wuhan to find out the origins of COVID-19 has yielded few definitive answers.
February 9, 2021, 1:16pm
A WHO-led team of investigators arrives at the Wuhan Institute of Virology in Wuhan
A WHO-led team of investigators arrives at the Wuhan Institute of Virology on Feb. 3. Photo: HECTOR RETAMAL / AFP

A World Health Organization-led team of experts sent to China to investigate the origins of COVID-19 has concluded that the virus likely came from an animal source.

Peter Ben Embarek, a WHO specialist in food safety and animal disease who led the investigation, said it was “extremely unlikely” that the virus spread to humans through a lab incident.

Ben Embarek said that the group of scientists would not recommend further study into a possible lab origin for the virus. The researchers last week visited the Wuhan Institute of Virology as part of their effort to find out the origins of the pandemic and prevent the next big one.

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“All the work that has been done on the virus,” he said Tuesday, continues “to point toward a natural reservoir.” 

The Trump administration had sought to tie the Wuhan lab to the virus, a claim that Beijing has forcefully denied. The Chinese authorities have also tried to promote the hypothesis that the virus, which has killed more than 2.3 million people worldwide, could have come from abroad.

The international team of 14 experts recommended further research into possible ways that the virus spread to humans from animals, namely through a spillover from a host of the pathogen, either directly or indirectly.

This is largely in line with the WHO’s previous view that the virus likely entered the human population through a zoonotic event.

“Did we change dramatically the picture we had beforehand? I don’t think so,” Ben Embarek said in a press conference a day before the team’s scheduled departure. 

COVID-19 was first detected in Wuhan in December 2019, which later prompted a strict 76-day lockdown of the entire city. China has reported some 89,000 cases and 4,600 deaths and largely prevented further outbreaks in recent months.

The WHO team confirmed the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market in Wuhan as one of the earliest sites where the virus had caused a cluster of infections, but it was unable to figure out how the virus got to those locations in the first place. 

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Ben Embarek suggested that animal products, including frozen meat, could have brought the virus to the city from an animal farm in other parts of China or overseas.

He added that Wuhan is not close to the natural habitats of bats, which are known to host coronaviruses, and therefore a direct jump from the animal was unlikely. 

While the trip didn’t yield a conclusive answer on where the pandemic originated, the scientists said their findings, to be published in detail, would help inform continuing research.

Before the Tuesday press conference, the WHO team spent 12 days conducting field work in Wuhan and, before that, two weeks in hotel quarantine, during which they reviewed research and conducted phone interviews.

Finding the source of a virus is likely to take years. The search, as the WHO team put it, is a “work in progress.”