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WHO coronavirus report: Animal carrier 'very likely' started pandemic

Lab leak called 'extremely unlikely' as 14 nations express concern over China study

A cell, red, is infected with particles of the virus that causes COVID-19, yellow, in this image provided by the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

PARIS/SHANGHAI/DALIAN, China -- The novel coronavirus that has killed around 2.8 million people worldwide most likely first spread to humans from animals, a World Health Organization report on the origins of the pandemic has found.

Tuesday's report almost totally rules out the laboratory leak hypothesis, which alleges that the virus escaped or was released from a research facility. This scenario, one of four considered by investigators during a joint WHO-China study from January to February, is called "extremely unlikely."

The report comes a little over a year after the coronavirus pandemic was declared and conforms with Chinese arguments that the virus causing COVID-19 did not come from the Wuhan Institute of Virology. But international critics have raised doubts about the independence of the WHO investigation and the Chinese side's willingness to provide full information.

The U.S., the U.K., Japan, South Korea and 10 other countries expressed "shared concerns" on the WHO-China study in a statement Tuesday, saying the probe "was significantly delayed and lacked access to complete, original data and samples."

"It is critical for independent experts to have full access to all pertinent human, animal, and environmental data, research, and personnel involved in the early stages of the outbreak relevant to determining how this pandemic emerged," said the countries, which also include Australia, Canada, Czechia, Denmark, Estonia, Israel, Latvia, Lithuania, Norway and Slovenia.

The report gives the most plausible scenario for the origin of the pandemic as transmission from an intermediate host animal. This means the virus passed from the original host animal, likely a bat, to another animal before infecting humans, according to the report, which calls this a "likely to very likely pathway."

Direct transmission from the original host animal is deemed "possible to likely," while the cold food chain hypothesis, which pins the blame on frozen food or its packing, is called "possible."

Peter Ben Embarek, a member of the World Health Organization team tasked with investigating the origins of the coronavirus arrives at the airport in Wuhan, China, on Feb. 10.   © Reuters

WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said Tuesday: "As far as WHO is concerned, all hypotheses remain on the table."

Tedros said he did not believe the joint study in China went far enough, and that "further data and studies will be needed to reach more robust conclusions."

China's official explanation maintains that the Huanan live food market in Wuhan -- an early hotbed of infections -- may have been exposed to the virus through channels including cold chain foods and animal products from other parts of the world. Beijing has insisted that origin-tracing investigations should be carried out in other countries, such as the U.S.

Beijing also has contested the link to bats and pangolins after gene sequences found in the wild animals shared similarities to the coronavirus. Even so, the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress abruptly banned illegal wildlife trade and consumption of wild animals in February 2020, a decision the top legislature said was taken to "safeguard people's health and livelihoods."

Prior to the ban, Yunnan Province in southern China was known for breeding exotic animals in captivity, a practice allowed by the local government to reduce poverty. It was a "unique industry" into which some villages invested millions of yuan, Liu Yongfu, director of the poverty alleviation office at China's State Council, told reporters last March, but it was not big enough to be recognized as a key industry.

A woman adjusts her glasses in Wuhan, the epicenter of China's coronavirus outbreak, in March 2020.   © Reuters

The WHO report courted controversy even before its release. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken told CNN this week he had concerns about the report's methodology, "including the fact that the government in Beijing apparently helped to write it." Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian called such talk "groundless accusations and wanton denigration."

An international group of experts wrote an open letter March 4, questioning the United Nations agency's investigations and calling for a fresh probe. Jamie Metzl, one of the authors and a member of the WHO expert advisory committee, tweeted that the joint study with China was restricted and failed to examine the "highly credible lab leak hypothesis."

China defended the report as the consensus of Chinese and foreign experts. Liang Wannian, a member of the WHO-China joint study team, told the Communist Party-affiliated Global Times on March 17 that raw data requiring special attention such as an early case database and epidemiological survey forms was shared with the WHO experts. But he acknowledged the experts were not allowed copies of some cases due to patient confidentiality based on Chinese laws.

Zhao, the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson, told reporters Monday: "I cannot help but ask, when will the U.S. be as open and transparent as China on the epidemic and origin-tracing issues? When will the WHO experts be invited to the United States for a visit on origin-tracing?"

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