With coronavirus sweeping across the world, it’s easy to forget the epicenter of the disease, Wuhan. Wuhan can be compared to Pittsburgh or Chicago.
World Health Organization investigators said Tuesday that they would no longer pursue research into whether the coronavirus leaked from a lab in Wuhan, China.
Peter Ben Embarek, a food safety and animal diseases expert, announced the decision during a press conference to wrap up a visit by an international team of WHO experts to the city where COVID-19 was first identified in December 2019.
Embarek said there was not enough evidence to support a hypothesis that the virus escaped from a Chinese biosafety laboratory in Wuhan – the Wuhan Institute of Virology – and that the WHO stood by its previous determination that COVID-19 most likely entered the human population through an intermediate animal.
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The WHO team has spent several weeks on a fact-finding mission in Wuhan. Experts from 10 nations have visited hospitals, research institutes and a wildlife market tied to the outbreak. However, WHO’s field work and other activities in Wuhan have been closely monitored by Chinese officials and security officers, and Beijing has repeatedly resisted called for a completely independent investigation into the origins of the virus.
“Did we change dramatically the picture we had beforehand? I don’t think so,” said Embarek, a Danish national who spoke on behalf of the WHO delegation in the news conference Tuesday. “Did we improve our understanding? Did we add details to that picture? Absolutely.”
Scientist Peter Ben Embarek speaks during a press conference to wrap up a visit by an international team of experts from the World Health Organization in the city of Wuhan, China, on February 9, 2021. (Photo: AFP via Getty Images)
In Washington, the State Department’s chief spokesman Ned Price said the U.S. would wait to see the WHO team’s full report before reaching its own conclusions about the origin of the coronavirus.
“Rather than rush to conclusions that may be motivated by anything other than the science, we want to see where that data leaves us, where that science leads us. And our conclusions will be predicated on that,” Price said.
Asked if the Biden administration is satisfied with China’s cooperation, Price said “the jury’s still out” on whether authorities in Beijing are being fully transparent. But he shot down assertions by some Chinese officials that the coronavirus may have first emerged in another country.
“I don’t think there is any reasonable person who would argue that the coronavirus originated elsewhere,” Price said.
No evidence has emerged to support suggestions that the coronavirus originated from a virology lab in Wuhan.
The theory stems from circumstantial evidence from several disparate sources, including repeated assertions from former President Donald Trump and his political backers, who never cited specific evidence. Speculation also emerged because of the Wuhan Institute of Virology’s proximity to the wildlife market in Wuhan where some of the first cases of the virus were traced.
A number of high-profile commentators have also noted that the Wuhan Institute of Virology is China’s most advanced biosafety lab and is known for its work researching coronaviruses in bats. The institute also attracted attention because of China’s initial unwillingness to share information about some aspects of the outbreak.
Embarek said the WHO team’s work to uncover COVID-19’s origins pointed to a “natural reservoir” in bats. He said accidental releases are extremely rare and that the team’s review of the institute’s lab operations indicated it would be hard for anything to escape from it. He also noted that there were no reports of the virus in any lab anywhere before the pandemic. However, Embarek said more work needed to be done because it was unclear whether this “natural reservoir” was in Wuhan itself.
A global team of researchers arrived Thursday in the central Chinese city where the coronavirus pandemic was first detected to conduct a politically sensitive investigation into its origins, amid uncertainty about whether Beijing might try to prevent embarrassing discoveries. (Jan. 14)
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The WHO found no indication the virus was circulating in Wuhan before the first official cases were detected, he said.
Liang Wannian, a member of China’s Health Commission who also appeared in the news conference, said it’s possible COVID-19 originated somewhere else in China before arriving in Wuhan.
The WHO concluded that the Wuhan wildlife market was an area where the virus began spreading rapidly, but it was unable to determine how it first arrived there.
“The market probably was a setting where that kind of spread could have happened easily, but that’s not the whole story,” Embarek said.
Peter Daszak, a British-American member of the WHO team in Wuhan, previously told USA TODAY that “in peoples’ imaginations there might be this image of one person in a lab in China who drops a petri dish and that somehow leads to a massive outbreak. It’s just not like that. Every year there are millions of people going in bat caves and hunting and eating wildlife. It happens every day.
“They are being exposed to bat viruses every day. It only takes one of these people to go to a city, cough and spread a virus.”
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