(CNSNews.com) – A World Health Organization-convened team of experts investigating the source of the coronavirus ended a four-week visit to Wuhan on Tuesday discounting as “extremely unlikely” the theory that the virus may have leaked from a laboratory in the Chinese city.
A lab incident was one of four hypotheses examined by the team of international and Chinese experts. The other three were: the virus jumped directly from an animal such as a bat to humans; it jumped from bats to humans via an intermediate host such as a pangolin or bamboo rat; transmission occurred through trade in frozen food products, possibly at the Huanan seafood market.
“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,” the head of the international team, Peter Ben Embarek, told reporters at a Wuhan hotel.
But, “the findings suggest that the laboratory incident hypothesis is extremely unlikely to explain the introduction of the virus into the human population,” he said, adding that the team would not therefore advise future studies in that direction.
Concerns that the virus may have leaked from the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) emerged because the lab – less then nine miles from the market – specializes in studying coronaviruses in bats. Its researchers in 2013 collected a coronavirus from bat feces in a cave in China’s Yunnan province. Early last year WIV scientists reported that that virus, named RaTG13, was found to share 96 percent genome sequence identity with the virus causing COVID-19.
Shortly before the end of the Trump adminstration, then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the U.S. government “has reason to believe” that several researchers at WIV had fallen ill in the fall of 2019, “with symptoms consistent with both COVID-19 and common seasonal illnesses.” He said the WHO-led team should look into that, and also into the lab’s research on bat coronaviruses including RaTG13.
A State Department fact sheet on Pompeo’s claims noted that accidental infections in labs in China and elsewhere have occurred in the past, “including a 2004 SARS [Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome] outbreak in Beijing that infected nine people, killing one.”
Asked why the team was ruling out the lab incident hypothesis, Embarek – a Swiss food safety and animal diseases expert – said that while lab accidents do happen, they were rare, and there were no reports of the COVID-19 virus, or anything closely linked to it, having been worked on in any laboratory anywhere in the world.
Having examined the processes and the state of WIV, the team considered it “very unlikely that anything could escape from such a place.”
Liang Wannian, the head of the team of Chinese experts involved in the mission, agreed, saying as no lab in Wuhan possessed a sample of the virus it could not have been leaked. WIV and the other labs in Wuhan uphold a “very stringent and high-quality management system,” he added.
The Chinese government has strenuously denied claims that a Wuhan lab could be responsible for the outbreak. The global pandemic that emerged in Wuhan has now been blamed for more than 2.3 million deaths worldwide.
The Chinese Communist Party paper Global Times said the team’s decision to discount the lab hypothesis “completely refutes the conspiracy theory raised by some anti-China hawks, like former U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who has been accusing the Wuhan Institute of Virology of leaking the virus.”
Pompeo told Fox News on Tuesday that “not a thing” has changed in his views about the lab.
The Trump administration accused China of mishandling the outbreak in ts early stages, and accused WHO of being overly deferential towards Beijing. It set in motion a process of U.S. withdrawal from the U.N. agency, but President Biden reversed the move soon after taking office.
In other comments Beijing will be pleased to hear, Liang at the press conference referred to “unpublished studies” from other countries suggesting that the coronavirus may have been circulating in other regions, “preceding the initial detection of cases [in Wuhan in December 2019] by several weeks.”
“This indicates the possibility of the misreported circulation in other regions,” he said.
On the same issue, Embarek said it had been important for the team to ensure their hypotheses “were not geographically-bound.”
“One of the clear reasons is that the possible path from whatever original animal species, all the way through the Huanan market could have taken a very long and convoluted path, involving also movement across borders, travels etc. before arriving in the Hunan market,” he said. “And therefore it’s very interesting to follow up on every one of these clues and preliminary reports and indications that perhaps here and there in other places in the world there were individuals who were infected [earlier], and try to follow up on these, and connect again the dots.”
For months China’s foreign ministry and state media outlets have highlighted reports suggesting COVID-19 had been circulating in other countries before it was detected in Wuhan, implying that it was brought into China from outside.
Asked about that at Tuesday’s press conference, Dutch team member and virologist Marion Koopmans said recommendations for the next steps include that “we should really go and search for evidence for earlier circulation, wherever that is indicated.”
As for the frozen food theory, Liang said the virus survived at low temperatures for a long time and could be carried long distance on cold-chain products. Many stores in Huanan market sell frozen food products, he said, but further research was needed to determine whether early cases were linked to the stores that sold such products.