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Virus ‘unlikely’ to have started in Wuhan lab, claims WHO investigative team

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Peter Ben Embarek and Marion Koopmans, members of the World Health Organisation team tasked with investigating the origins of the coronavirus, attend the WHO-China joint study news conference at a hotel in Wuhan, Hubei province, China. Photo: REUTERS/Aly Song

Peter Ben Embarek and Marion Koopmans, members of the World Health Organisation team tasked with investigating the origins of the coronavirus, attend the WHO-China joint study news conference at a hotel in Wuhan, Hubei province, China. Photo: REUTERS/Aly Song

Peter Ben Embarek and Marion Koopmans, members of the World Health Organisation team tasked with investigating the origins of the coronavirus, attend the WHO-China joint study news conference at a hotel in Wuhan, Hubei province, China. Photo: REUTERS/Aly Song

The World Health Organisation (WHO) team investigating the origins of the coronavirus pandemic has said it was “extremely unlikely” the disease entered the human population as a result of a laboratory leak.

The experts, who have been in China for the last four weeks, yesterday dismissed the need for further investigation into the theory at a lengthy press conference in Wuhan.

Dr Peter Ben Embarek, chairman of the investigative team, said that while “accidents do happen”, there was no evidence to support the speculation that the virus could have emerged from one of the country’s biological research facilities.

“The findings suggest that the laboratory incidence hypothesis is extremely unlikely to explain the introduction of the virus into the human population,” he said.

“There have been no reports of this virus, or another virus closely linked to this, being worked with in any laboratory in the world.”

The most likely explanation for the emergence of Covid-19, he added, was that the disease jumped from bats to humans via an unknown host species rabbits, ferret-badgers and bamboo rats have been suggested.

However, Dr Ben Embarek announced that the team could not rule out that the virus had travelled to Wuhan on frozen food a claim that had been heavily promoted by Beijing.

The Chinese authorities have repeatedly suggested that the virus was brought into the country from abroad.

Beijing claimed to have found traces of the virus on products from countries including the US, New Zealand, Canada, India, Germany, Saudi Arabia and Ecuador although many of these nations have disputed the methodology of detection.

Previously, the WHO had said that instances of live viruses on packaging were “rare and isolated” and it was not clear that they could cause infection.

The Wuhan team had been working under intense scrutiny amid trouble securing visas for investigators and accusations from the former Trump administration that the WHO had become too accommodating of China.

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Asked if Boris Johnson agreed with the findings of its investigation, the British Prime Minister’s official spokesman said: “We are supporting the WHO investigation and it is important that this is open and transparent. We will wait for further information on their findings.”

However, the team insisted during the media briefing that the conclusions of the trip were “robust” and “absolutely” helped to fill in gaps in understanding the early stages of the pandemic though the fundamental picture had not altered.

The team also said it was unlikely that the virus had been the result of a direct zoonotic spillover because Wuhan was miles from any natural bat habitat.

“The search for the possible route of introduction through different animal species and the specific reservoir are still a work in progress,” said Dr Ben Embarek.

The investigation found no evidence that the virus had been circulating widely in Wuhan before December 2019.


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