WUHAN, China — A World Health Organization expert said Tuesday the coronavirus is “extremely unlikely” to have leaked from a Chinese lab and most likely jumped to humans via an intermediary species.
WHO food safety and animal diseases expert Peter Ben Embarek made the assessment in a summation of a WHO team’s investigation into the possible origins of the coronavirus in the central Chinese city of Wuhan, where the first cases were discovered in December 2019.
The Wuhan Institute of Virology has collected extensive virus samples, leading to allegations, including from the Trump administration, 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.
“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 said.
“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.
Transmission through the trade in frozen products was also a likely possibility, Embarek said.
Transmission from animals was likely, said Liang Wannian, head of the Chinese contingent, but the host of the virus, which has claimed more than 2.3 million lives and gutted the global economy, “remain to be identified.”
Liang said there was “no indication” the sickness was circulating in Wuhan before December 2019 when the first official cases were recorded.
The WHO mission — which Beijing repeatedly delayed — was dogged by fears of a whitewash, with the US demanding a “robust” probe and China firing back with a warning not to “politicize” the investigation.
During the closely monitored visit — which included a visit to a propaganda exhibition celebrating China’s recovery — reporters were largely kept at arms’ length from the experts.
Along with the institute, the WHO team, comprising experts from 10 nations, has visited hospitals, research institutes, a traditional market tied to the outbreak and other sites.
The visit by the WHO team took months to negotiate after China only agreed to it amid massive international pressure at the World Health Assembly meeting last May, and Beijing has continued to deny calls for a strictly independent investigation.
Chinese authorities have kept a tight hold on information about the possible causes of the pandemic that has now sickened more than 105 million people and killed more than 2.2 million worldwide.