The World Health Organization, which has suffered widespread condemnation for allowing China to deceive it in the early days of the coronavirus outbreak, is now downplaying the theory that the virus had its roots in a lab in Wuhan.
A WHO official said Tuesday that the virus originated in an unknown animal and spread to humans.
“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,” Peter Ben Embarek, WHO food safety and animal diseases expert, told reporters, according to Fox News.
The Wuhan Institute of Virology, which collects virus samples, has been considered a suspect in many theories of how the virus spread. Embarek said that’s not how he sees it.
“The findings suggest that the laboratory incidents hypothesis is extremely unlikely to explain the introduction of the virus to the human population,” he said.
“Therefore it is not a hypothesis that we advise to suggest future studies … into the understanding of the origin of the virus,” he said.
Embarek spoke after a visit to Wuhan, which was the epicenter of the outbreak last year. He said a simple answer for the root of the virus will most likely miss the mark.
“The possible path from whatever original animal species all the way through to the Huanan market could have taken a very long and convoluted path involving also movements across borders,” Embarek said, according to Reuters.
He said vendors selling frozen animal products could have been a conduit for the virus.
“So there is the potential to continue to follow this lead and further look at the supply chain and animals that were supplied to the market,” Embarek said.
China has supported a theory that the virus is transmitted in frozen food.
“We know the virus can survive in conditions that are found in these cold, frozen environments, but we don’t really understand if the virus can transmit to humans” under those conditions, Embarek said.
The lead Chinese official in the WHO team was pointing future investigations away from Wuhan altogether, supporting past claims that the virus was circulating outside of Wuhan long before the outbreak first became noticed in December 2019.
“This indicates the possibility of the missed reported circulation in other regions,” said Liang Wannian of China’s National Health Commission.
Last January, the WHO parroted the Chinese party line that there was no human-to-human transmission of the virus, as noted by the Atlantic, citing what it called a “notorious example” of the WHO’s conduct in a Jan. 14 tweet that essentially replicated a Chinese government statement denying the possibility.
“This, we now know, was catastrophically untrue,” the Atlantic noted.
“We were deceived,” Lawrence Gostin, a professor of global health law at Georgetown University, said, according to The Washington Post.
“Myself and other public health experts, based on what the World Health Organization and China were saying, reassured the public that this was not serious, that we could bring this under control,” Gostin said, adding that the WHO and China gave the world “a false sense of assurance.”
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