A World Health Organization team investigating the origins of the coronavirus pandemic downplayed the possibility that the virus leaked from a lab near Wuhan, China, during a news conference on Tuesday.
Instead, coronavirus likely spread from an animal to humans, WHO food safety and animal diseases expert Peter Ben Embarek said. The WHO and China have faced strong criticism from around the world over their pandemic response, as China blocked WHO investigators from entering Wuhan for months; they finally arrived in mid-January of this year.
“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 told reporters.
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“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.”
Embarek made the assessment at the end of a visit to the central Chinese city of Wuhan, where a team of scientists is investigating the possible origins of the coronavirus. The first cases were discovered in the city in December 2019.
The Wuhan Institute of Virology has collected extensive virus samples, leading to allegations that it may have caused the original outbreak by leaking the virus into the surrounding community. China has strongly rejected that possibility and has promoted other theories that the virus may have originated elsewhere. The team is considering several theories for how the disease first ended up in humans.
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The WHO team draws on experts from 10 countries. Its mission is intended to be an initial step delving into the origins of the virus, which is believed to have originated in bats before being passed to humans through another species of wild animal, such as a pangolin or bamboo rat, which is considered an exotic delicacy by some in China.
Transmission through the trade in frozen products was also a likely possibility, Embarek said.
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Critics of the WHO say China has an outsized influence on the world health body. President Biden said he would re-engage with the WHO — reversing former President Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the controversial U.N. body over its handling of the early days of the COVID-19 crisis.
The Associated Press and Fox News’ Adam Shaw contributed to this report.