The WHO’s leader said its investigation into whether the coronavirus leaked from a Wuhan lab was not ‘extensive enough’

World Health Organization (WHO) Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus attends a news conference organized by Geneva Association of United Nations Correspondents (ACANU) amid the COVID-19 outbreak, caused by the novel coronavirus, at the WHO headquarters in Geneva Switzerland July 3, 2020.
World Health Organization director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus at a news conference in Geneva, Switzerland.

After a month-long investigation in Wuhan, the World Health Organization has offered the most comprehensive analysis to date of where the coronavirus might have come from and how it could have gotten into the human population.

The WHO report, released Tuesday, lists the coronavirus’ possible origin scenarios in order of their likelihood. At the top is the possibility that the coronavirus jumped from bats to people via an intermediary animal host, perhaps at a wildlife farm in China. Last on the ranking is the controversial theory that the virus leaked from a Chinese lab.

But in a press conference Tuesday, the WHO’s director-general, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, said he does “not believe that this assessment was extensive enough.”

“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,” he said. Tedros added that members of the international WHO team who traveled to China “expressed the difficulties they encountered in accessing raw data.”

Following the report’s release, the US and a dozen other countries have called for an independent investigation into the coronavirus’ origins – one that would be “free from interference and undue influence,” The Wall Street Journal reported.

A lab leak is ‘extremely unlikely,’ but the WHO didn’t audit Wuhan labs

Tedros said the lab-leak hypothesis should “remain on the table,” since the WHO experts spent only hours at each high-level biosafety lab in Wuhan.

Peter Ben Embarek, a WHO scientist specializing in animal disease, said during the press conference that the group didn’t do “a full investigation or audit” of any particular lab. Overall, he added, the possibility of a lab leak “did not receive the same depth of attention and work” as other hypotheses about the virus’ origin.

Still, the report offers compelling reasons why it’s extremely unlikely the virus escaped from a lab.

The team found no evidence that samples of the new coronavirus existed at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, where scientists were studying various coronaviruses prior to the pandemic, before the first COVID-19 cases were reported in December 2019.

The WHO also didn’t find any records indicating that viruses closely related to the new coronavirus were kept in any Chinese lab before that month. There were also no viruses that, when combined, could have produced the new coronavirus.

wuhan institute of virology
The Wuhan Institute of Virology, pictured on April 17, 2020.

Additionally, none of the staff in any Wuhan labs studying coronaviruses reported cases of respiratory illnesses “during the weeks/months prior to December 2019,” the report said.

Blood samples from staff during that time (which are taken routinely from biosafety lab workers to monitor their health) also all tested negative for coronavirus antibodies. This suggests no lab workers got infected prior to the pandemic.

‘This is something coming out of our labs’

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Members of the World Health Organization’s team investigating the origins of the coronavirus pandemic attend a press conference in Wuhan, China, on February 9, 2021.

The WHO team’s report did reveal, however, that the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) moved to a new location in early December 2019. The new facility happened to be about 8 miles from the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market, to which China’s first cluster of cases was linked.

That proximity, coupled with the fact that there were multiple labs in Wuhan studying coronaviruses at the time the pandemic began, has led to speculation about a possible link between a lab and the market outbreak.

“Even the staff in these labs told us that was their first reaction when they heard about this new emerging disease, this coronavirus: ‘This is something coming out of our labs,'” Embarek said.

“They all went back to their to their records and work to try to find out if there was a link but nobody could find any trace of something similar to this virus in in their records or their their samples,” he added.

But Embarek’s team didn’t have the resources to fully verify that claim.

“A team of scientists is not qualified to conduct a detailed audit of WIV’s records, or get access to institutional files, lab notebooks, databases, or freezer inventories,” virologist Angela Rasmussen, a virologist and member of the WHO team, told Science.

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A car that’s part of a convoy carrying the World Health Organization team of researchers arrives at the Hubei Provincial Hospital of Integrated Chinese and Western Medicine also known as the Hubei Province Xinhua Hospital in Wuhan in central China’s Hubei province Friday, Jan. 29, 2021.

Dominic Dwyer, a WHO microbiologist who’s worked in high-level biosafety labs before, said on Tuesday that the team was “satisfied there was no obvious evidence of a problem,” in any of the labs they visited. He noted as well that a complete forensic examination of a lab is a complex process, and that was “not what we were there to do.”

The WHO team did, however, speak with managers and staff at the labs about their safety protocol, and confirmed the facilities were well-managed.

A wealth of evidence points to the conclusion that bats first passed the coronavirus to an animal, the WHO experts said. Then that animal population passed it along to humans. Indeed, a May study revealed that the new coronavirus shared 97.1% of its genetic code with a coronavirus called RmYN02, which was found in bats in China’s Yunnan province between May and October 2019.

Bats are common virus hosts – cross-species hops from bat populations also led to the outbreaks of Ebola, SARS, and the Nipah virus.

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A WHO investigation into the coronavirus’ origins points the finger at animals in Chinese wildlife farms

covid researchers wuhan
A worker in protective GEAR directs members of the World Health Organization team at the airport in Wuhan, China, January 14, 2021.

A new World Health Organization report, set to be released on Tuesday, lists the coronavirus’ possible origin scenarios in order of their likelihood.

According to the the Associated Press, which obtained a draft copy of the report, the most likely option is that the coronavirus jumped from bats to people via an intermediary animal host, perhaps at a wildlife farm in China. Next on the likelihood ranking is the possibility that the virus jumped directly from bats to people.

The report is the product of a month-long investigation by an international team that was sent to Wuhan, China, in January to investigate how the virus got into the human population, and from where. The effort, however, yielded few definitive answers.

The WHO team also evaluated less plausible theories, the AP reported, including that the virus might have spread to humans via frozen food products; the report authors deemed this scenario “not likely.” One hypothesis was labeled “extremely unlikely” and all but dismissed: the possibility that the coronavirus escaped from a Chinese lab.

Chinese wildlife farms are a possible origin site

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A farmer checks rabbits at his farm on January 29, 2021 in Chongqing, China.

The WHO experts behind the report – which the AP got from a diplomat in Geneva, Switzerland – worked together with Chinese scientists during their trip. The WHO team said it got unfettered access to key places in Wuhan over four weeks, including hospitals, laboratories, and the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market, where officials reported the first known cluster of COVID-19 cases in December 2019.

The group’s conclusion, though far from certain, is that wildlife farms in southern China are the most likely place where the virus made a cross-species hop into humans.

“They take exotic animals, like civets, porcupines, pangolins, raccoon dogs, and bamboo rats, and they breed them in captivity,” Peter Daszak, a disease ecologist and member of the WHO team, told NPR. He added that China shut down those wildlife farms in February 2020.

The coronavirus probably came into our population via one of those bred animals, perhaps a pangolin, rabbit, or ferret, according to the WHO. Daszak said his team found evidence that these wildlife farms supplied vendors at the Huanan market.

The virus likely came from bats, and it didn’t leak from a lab

horseshoe bat
A greater horseshoe bat, a relative of the Rhinolophis sinicus bat species that was the original host of the SARS virus.

Although the WHO report does not pinpoint exactly where the coronavirus outbreak began, it does offer reasons why it almost certainly did not leak from a lab, as some unsubstantiated theories suggest.

Ideas about a lab leak often point to the Wuhan Institute of Virology, where some scientists were studying various coronaviruses prior to the pandemic. The lab is about 8 miles from the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market.

But the WHO team found no evidence that samples of the new coronavirus existed at the institute, or at any other labs in China, before the pandemic began. The team also spoke with managers and staff at the institute about their safety protocols.

According to Peter Ben Embarek, a WHO scientist specializing in animal disease, it is “very unlikely that anything could escape from such a place.”

wuhan institute of virology
The Wuhan Institute of Virology, pictured on April 17, 2020.

Much more likely, the WHO experts said, is that the virus started circulating in bats first.

A study from February 2020 found that the new coronavirus shares 96% of its genetic code with a coronavirus seen in Chinese bat populations. Then another study revealed an even closer match: a 97.1% similarity to a coronavirus called RmYN02, which was found in bats in China’s Yunnan province between May and October 2019.

Bats are common virus hosts – cross-species hops from bat populations also led to the outbreaks of Ebola, SARS, and the Nipah virus.

‘Real concerns about the methodology’

wuhan huanan market
Residents wear masks in Wuhan, February 9, 2021.

Doubts about the trustworthiness of the WHO report linger, however. The AP revealed in December that the Chinese government was strictly controlling all research into the virus’ origins, while simultaneously promoting theories that it came from outside of China. Mounting evidence also suggests that the virus was circulating in China months before the first cases were reported.

“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,” US Secretary of State Antony Blinken told CNN on Thursday. During his confirmation hearing in January, Blinken said he thought China had misled the world about the coronavirus.

Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said he’s reserving judgment about the WHO findings until he can “get a feel for what they had or did not have access to.”

“Once I get that information, I’ll be able to more adequately answer whether I trust it or not,” Fauci said of the report in a White House press briefing on Monday.

The lingering uncertainty leaves a door open for unsubstantiated theories to continue to spread. Robert Redfield, who was head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention under President Donald Trump, recently reiterated one such idea: that the virus escaped from a Wuhan lab.

“Other people don’t believe that. That’s fine. Science will eventually figure it out,” Redfield told CNN on Friday, adding, “I’m allowed to have opinions now.”

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I’m a doctor who was on the WHO’s COVID-19 mission to China. Here’s what we learned about the virus’ origins.

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The shuttered Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market in Wuhan, China, January 21, 2020.

As I write, I am in hotel quarantine in Sydney, after returning from Wuhan, China. There, I was the Australian representative on the international World Health Organization’s (WHO) investigation into the origins of the SARS-CoV-2 virus.

Much has been said of the politics surrounding the mission to investigate the viral origins of COVID-19. So it’s easy to forget that behind these investigations are real people.

As part of the mission, we met the man who, on December 8, 2019, was the first confirmed COVID-19 case; he’s since recovered. We met the husband of a doctor who died of COVID-19 and left behind a young child. We met the doctors who worked in the Wuhan hospitals treating those early COVID-19 cases, and learned what happened to them and their colleagues. We witnessed the impact of COVID-19 on many individuals and communities, affected so early in the pandemic, when we didn’t know much about the virus, how it spreads, how to treat COVID-19, or its impacts.

We talked to our Chinese counterparts – scientists, epidemiologists, doctors – over the four weeks the WHO mission was in China. We were in meetings with them for up to 15 hours a day, so we became colleagues, even friends. This allowed us to build respect and trust in a way you couldn’t necessarily do via Zoom or email.

This is what we learned about the origins of SARS-CoV-2.

The virus was most likely of animal origin

wuhan huanan market
A cyclist rides in front of the closed Huanan market in Wuhan, China on February 9, 2021.

It was in Wuhan, in central China, that the virus, now called SARS-CoV-2, emerged in December 2019, unleashing the greatest infectious disease outbreak since the 1918-19 influenza pandemic.

Our investigations concluded the virus was most likely of animal origin. It probably crossed over to humans from bats, via an as-yet-unknown intermediary animal, at an unknown location. Such “zoonotic” diseases have triggered pandemics before. But we are still working to confirm the exact chain of events that led to the current pandemic. Sampling of bats in Hubei province and wildlife across China has revealed no SARS-CoV-2 to date.

We visited the now-closed Wuhan wet market which, in the early days of the pandemic, was blamed as the source of the virus. Some stalls at the market sold “domesticated” wildlife products. These are animals raised for food, such as bamboo rats, civets, and ferret badgers. There is also evidence some domesticated wildlife may be susceptible to SARS-CoV-2. However, none of the animal products sampled after the market’s closure tested positive for SARS-CoV-2.

We also know not all of those first 174 early COVID-19 cases visited the market, including the man who was diagnosed in December 2019 with the earliest onset date.

However, when we visited the closed market, it’s easy to see how an infection might have spread there. When it was open, there would have been around 10,000 people visiting a day, in close proximity, with poor ventilation and drainage.

There’s also genetic evidence generated during the mission for a transmission cluster there. Viral sequences from several of the market cases were identical, suggesting a transmission cluster. However, there was some diversity in other viral sequences, implying other unknown or unsampled chains of transmission.

A summary of modelling studies of the time to the most recent common ancestor of SARS-CoV-2 sequences estimated the start of the pandemic between mid-November and early December. There are also publications suggesting SARS-CoV-2 circulation in various countries earlier than the first case in Wuhan, although these require confirmation.

The market in Wuhan, in the end, was more of an amplifying event rather than necessarily a true ground zero. So we need to look elsewhere for the viral origins.

Did frozen or refrigerated food play a role?

frozen food coronavirus china
A woman looks at frozen food in a supermarket in Beijing, China, August 13, 2020.

Then there was the “cold chain” hypothesis. This is the idea the virus might have originated from elsewhere via the farming, catching, processing, transporting, refrigeration, or freezing of food. Was that food ice cream, fish, wildlife meat? We don’t know. It’s unproven that this triggered the origin of the virus itself. But to what extent did it contribute to its spread? Again, we don’t know.

Several “cold chain” products present in the Wuhan market were not tested for the virus. Environmental sampling in the market showed viral surface contamination. This may indicate the introduction of SARS-CoV-2 through infected people, or contaminated animal products and “cold chain” products. Investigation of “cold chain” products and virus survival at low temperatures is still underway.

It’s extremely unlikely that the virus escaped from a lab

wuhan institute of virology
The Wuhan Institute of Virology, pictured on April 17, 2020.

The most politically sensitive option we looked at was the virus escaping from a laboratory. We concluded this was extremely unlikely.

We visited the Wuhan Institute of Virology, which is an impressive research facility, and looks to be run well, with due regard to staff health.

We spoke to the scientists there. We heard that scientists’ blood samples, which are routinely taken and stored, were tested for signs they had been infected. No evidence of antibodies to the coronavirus was found. We looked at their biosecurity audits. No evidence.

We looked at the closest virus to SARS-CoV-2 they were working on – the virus RaTG13 – which had been detected in caves in southern China where some miners had died seven years previously.

But all the scientists had was a genetic sequence for this virus. They hadn’t managed to grow it in culture. While viruses certainly do escape from laboratories, this is rare. So, we concluded it was extremely unlikely this had happened in Wuhan.

A team of more than 30 experts 

WHO wuhan
Members of the World Health Organization’s team investigating the origins of the coronavirus pandemic at a press conference in Wuhan, China, on February 9, 2021.

When I say “we,” the mission was a joint exercise between the WHO and the Chinese health commission. In all, there were 17 Chinese and 10 international experts, plus seven other experts and support staff from various agencies. We looked at the clinical epidemiology (how COVID-19 spread among people), the molecular epidemiology (the genetic makeup of the virus and its spread), and the role of animals and the environment.

The clinical epidemiology group alone looked at China’s records of 76,000 episodes from more than 200 institutions of anything that could have resembled COVID-19 – such as influenza-like illnesses, pneumonia, and other respiratory illnesses. They found no clear evidence of substantial circulation of COVID-19 in Wuhan during the latter part of 2019 before the first case.

What’s next?

Our mission to China was only phase one. We are due to publish our official report in the coming weeks. Investigators will also look further afield for data, to investigate evidence the virus was circulating in Europe, for instance, earlier in 2019. Investigators will continue to test wildlife and other animals in the region for signs of the virus. And we’ll continue to learn from our experiences to improve how we investigate the next pandemic.

Irrespective of the origins of the virus, individual people with the disease are at the beginning of the epidemiology data points, sequences, and numbers. The long-term physical and psychological effects – the tragedy and anxiety – will be felt in Wuhan, and elsewhere, for decades to come.

The Conversation
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WHO and Chinese scientists concluded it’s ‘extremely unlikely’ the coronavirus leaked from a lab, after a 4-week investigation

wuhan huanan market
A cyclist rides in front of the closed Huanan Seafood Market in Wuhan, China on February 9, 2021.

A year into the pandemic, the origins of the coronavirus are still a mystery. 

The World Health Organization sent an international team to Wuhan, China in January to investigate where the virus came from and how it was introduced into the human population. Yet the investigation yielded few definitive answers.

The experts were able to take one hypothesis off the table, however: the idea that the novel coronavirus may have accidentally leaked from a Wuhan lab. This unsubstantiated theory was pushed by some members of the Trump administration in the spring. But Peter Ben Embarek, the WHO’s food safety and animal disease specialist, said in a Tuesday press conference that a lab leak is “extremely unlikely to explain the introduction of the virus into the human population.”

The WHO team will not be revisiting that hypothesis in future studies, he said, adding that the virus most likely jumped from an animal host into people – just like Ebola and SARS did.

‘It was very unlikely that anything could escape from such a place’

WHO wuhan
Members of the World Health Organization’s team investigating the origins of the coronavirus pandemic attend a press conference in Wuhan, China, on February 9, 2021.

Working together with Chinese scientists, the WHO experts had unfettered access to key places in Wuhan over four weeks, including hospitals, laboratories, and the Huanan Seafood Market, which was linked to the first known cluster of COVID-19 cases. 

Those who’d suggested the possibility of a lab leak mostly pointed to the Wuhan Institute of Virology, since some scientists there study coronaviruses. It’s one of the highest-level biosafety labs in the world. There’s no evidence, however, that any coronavirus sample collected for study in that lab was accidentally released.

The WHO team spoke with managers and staff at the institute and other labs in the area about their safety protocols.

“Accidents do happen,” Ben Embarek said. “We have many examples in many countries in the world of past accidents.” But he added that such accidents are rare and the Wuhan institute houses a “state of the art lab and it is very unlikely that anything could escape from such a place.”

Jonna Mazet, a US epidemiologist who has worked with and trained researchers at the institute, also previously told Insider that “it’s highly unlikely this was a lab accident,” 

Mazet said she helped the staff develop and implement a “very stringent safety protocol.”

wuhan institute of virology
The Wuhan Institute of Virology, pictured on April 17, 2020.

In fact, the WHO team found no evidence that samples of the novel coronavirus existed in any Wuhan labs, or any other labs in the world, before the pandemic. 

Shi Zhengli, a virologist at the Wuhan institute, told Scientific American in April that she personally checked and found that none of the coronavirus samples stored at the institute matched the novel coronavirus’ genome.

“That really took a load off my mind,” Shi said. “I had not slept a wink for days.”

The virus likely jumped from bats to an intermediary host, then to people

Most experts agree that the novel coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, jumped from an animal host to humans in what’s known as a spillover event.

Bats are common virus hosts: Cross-species hops from bats also led to outbreaks of Ebola and SARS. So labs around the world have analyzed genetic samples of bat coronaviruses that were circulating prior to the pandemic. One study found in February that the new coronavirus shares 96% of its genetic code with a coronavirus seen in Chinese bat populations. Then a May study revealed a closer match: A 97.1% similarity to a coronavirus called RmYN02, which was found in bats in China’s Yunnan province between May and October 2019.

horseshoe bat
A greater horseshoe bat, a relative of the bat species that was the original host of the SARS virus.

According to the WHO team, it’s unlikely the virus hopped directly from bats to people, though.

“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,” Ben Embarek said. 

Animals that might have served as that intermediary host include pangolins, ferrets, minks, snakes, or turtles. 

Marion Koopmans, a WHO virologist, said in the press conference the team found that rabbits and ferret-badgers sold at the Huanan Seafood Market came from regions in China where bats and other animals harbor viruses similar to the new coronavirus. Both of those species are susceptible to SARS-CoV-2, so have been intermediary hosts. 

wuhan huanan market
Residents wear masks while walking in Wuhan, China, February 9, 2021.

But the WHO experts couldn’t confirm how the new coronavirus arrived at the Huanan market. It’s possible that an infected person passed the virus to others at the market, or “it could also be through the introduction of a product,” Ben Embarek said.

“A frozen wild animal that was infected could be a potential vehicle of the virus into market environments,” he added.

Still, the cases linked to the Huanan market were not the first in China.

The virus wasn’t engineered in a lab, either

A conspiracy theory similar to the lab-leak idea is that the new coronavirus was engineered in a Wuhan laboratory. A group of Chinese virologists with ties to former Trump strategist Steve Bannon suggested in September that Chinese scientists engineered the virus using existing bat coronaviruses as a “backbone” or “template.”

One of those virologists, Li-Meng Yan, told Fox News host Tucker Carlson that the virus was “man-made” and “intentionally” released by the Chinese government.

But that theory “has already been refuted by the scientific community around the world,” Liang Wannian, a member of China’s National Health Commission who assisted with the WHO investigation, said at the press conference.

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A worker in protective gear directs members of the WHO investigation team upon their arrival at the airport in Wuhan, January 14, 2021.

A March study published in the journal Nature concluded based on genetic analysis that the new coronavirus wasn’t a hodgepodge of existing coronaviruses. The authors found it could not be a “laboratory construct” or “purposefully manipulated virus.”

“The genetic data irrefutably show that SARS-CoV-2 is not derived from any previously used virus backbone,” they said.

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