A group of World Health Organization researchers called the theory that the coronavirus pandemic is the result of a Chinese lab accident “extremely unlikely” following two weeks of fieldwork looking into the pandemic’s origins.
That determination was made after “long, frank, open discussions with researchers and management” at the Wuhan Institute of Virology ― the lab suspected by some of having covered up a security breach ― according to Peter Ben Embarek, a Danish food safety scientist with the WHO.
These findings support what scientists have been saying for months: The virus is believed to have spread to humans through an intermediary animal, or animals, although further study is still needed to determine which creatures might have been involved.
“All the work that has been done on the virus and trying to identify its origin continue to point toward a natural reservoir,” Embarek said at a press conference Tuesday.
There is a broad scientific consensus that the virus originated in bats, due to its similarity to other viruses known to come from bats, such as the SARS virus. It likely jumped from bats to another animal before infecting its first humans, but confirming that will require “more targeted research,” Embarek said.
The less-than-groundbreaking announcement came after a team of WHO researchers traveled to Wuhan, China ― the region where COVID-19 cases were first recorded in 2019 ― to spend 12 days trying to pin down how the pandemic started, in order to help prevent a similar disaster in the future.
The group said that the virus spread throughout Wuhan in December 2019, noting that there is no solid evidence of widespread circulation prior to then, despite earlier reports. People with and without connections to the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market were being infected at the same time.
Initial reports on the coronavirus’s origin suggested that the Huanan market might have been where the virus started infecting humans, because it brought people into close contact with all sorts of animals, including wild ones. Several of the people first confirmed to have the virus had connections to the market. However, the very first person known to have contracted COVID-19 did not have any link to the market, punching a big hole in the theory that the outbreak started there.
The WHO researchers affirmed Tuesday that they did not believe the Huanan market to be the sole origin of the pandemic, although it still played a key role. Some of the animals that were sold there, like the ferret badger, are known to be susceptible to coronaviruses and could be traced back to areas where coronavirus-infected bats are known to live.
It remains unclear how long it will take to determine the precise origin of COVID-19, if the answer is ever found at all. Previous attempts to figure out how the SARS and MERS viruses started spreading in humans took years of effort.
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