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WHO report to say animals probable COVID source, lab leak ‘extremely unlikely’

Joint WHO-Chinese team probing coronavirus outbreak to conclude disease was probably passed from bats to another animal then humans, also to recommend further study

Cars transporting members of the World Health Organization (WHO) team, investigating the origins of the COVID-19 coronavirus, arrive at the closed Huanan Seafood wholesale market in Wuhan, China's central Hubei province on January 31, 2021. Hector RETAMAL/AFP)
Cars transporting members of the World Health Organization (WHO) team, investigating the origins of the COVID-19 coronavirus, arrive at the closed Huanan Seafood wholesale market in Wuhan, China's central Hubei province on January 31, 2021. Hector RETAMAL/AFP)

BEIJING — A joint WHO-China study on the origins of COVID-19 says that transmission of the virus from bats to humans through another animal is the most likely scenario and that a lab leak is “extremely unlikely,” according to a draft copy obtained by The Associated Press.

The findings were largely as expected and left many questions unanswered. The team proposed further research in every area except the lab leak hypothesis.

The report’s release has been repeatedly delayed, raising questions about whether the Chinese side was trying to skew the conclusions to prevent blame for the pandemic falling on China. A World Health Organization official said late last week that he expected it would be ready for release “in the next few days.”

The AP received what appeared to be a near-final version on Monday from a Geneva-based diplomat from a WHO-member country. It wasn’t clear whether the report might still be changed prior to its release. The diplomat did not want to be identified because they were not authorized to release it ahead of publication.

A view of the P4 lab inside the Wuhan Institute of Virology is seen after a visit by the World Health Organization team in Wuhan in China’s Hubei province on Feb. 3, 2021. (AP Photo/Ng Han Guan)

The researchers listed four scenarios in order of likelihood. They concluded that transmission through a second animal was likely to very likely. They evaluated direct spread from bats to humans as likely, and said that spread through “cold-chain” food products was possible but not likely.

The closest relative of the virus that causes COVID-19 has been found in bats, which are known to carry coronaviruses. However, the report says that “the evolutionary distance between these bat viruses and SARS-CoV-2 is estimated to be several decades, suggesting a missing link.”

It said that highly similar viruses have been found in pangolins, but also noted that mink and cats are susceptible to the COVID virus, which suggests they could be carriers.

The report is based largely on a visit by a WHO team of international experts to Wuhan, the Chinese city where COVID-19 was first detected, from mid-January to mid-February.

The idea of a lab leak from the Wuhan Institute of Virology is a hypothesis that was also promoted by former US president Donald Trump’s administration. Beijing has favored the theory that COVID-19 transmission came through frozen meat imported in frozen food packages.

Peter Ben Embarek of the World Health Organization team holds up a chart showing pathways of transmission of the virus during a joint press conference held at the end of the WHO mission in Wuhan in central China’s Hubei province on Feb. 9, 2021. (AP Photo/Ng Han Guan)

Peter Ben Embarek, the WHO expert who led the Wuhan mission, said Friday that the report had been finalized and was being fact-checked and translated.

“I expect that in the next few days, that whole process will be completed and we will be able to release it publicly,” he said.

The coronavirus pandemic has engulfed the planet, killing more than 2.6 million people and shredding the global economy since the first cases emerged in Wuhan in December 2019.

It was only in January 2021 that a team of international experts assembled by the World Health Organization finally visited Wuhan to start a month-long investigation on the ground.

The WHO mission was aimed at finding clues as to how the virus originally jumped from animals into humans.

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