No evidence of Covid-19 leak from Wuhan lab, may have emerged from wildlife trade, say WHO scientists

Published on Mar 12, 2021 12:21 PM IST
The experts said that they found a 'link' between the wet market in Wuhan, where people first fell ill, and neighbouring regions in South China where bats were found with viruses.
In this Tuesday, Feb. 9, 2021 file photo, Marion Koopmans of the World Health Organization team speaks during a joint press conference held at the end of the WHO mission in Wuhan in central China's Hubei province. (AP Photo/Ng Han Guan, file)
In this Tuesday, Feb. 9, 2021 file photo, Marion Koopmans of the World Health Organization team speaks during a joint press conference held at the end of the WHO mission in Wuhan in central China's Hubei province. (AP Photo/Ng Han Guan, file)
Written by Joydeep Bose

The four World Health Organisation (WHO) scientific experts who travelled to China to probe the Covid-19 pandemic's origins said that contrary to conspiracy theories, there currently is no evidence that suggests the novel coronavirus 'leaked' from a Chinese laboratory in Wuhan.

Instead, the most likely explanation is that the pandemic may have been caused by unfettered wildlife trade in the country, the experts said.

Speaking at a virtual event hosted by the Chatham House think-tank, the experts said that they found a 'link' between the wet market in Wuhan, where people first fell ill, and neighbouring regions in South China where bats were found with viruses.


Dr Peter Daszak, zoologist and president of EcoHealth Alliance, a global nonprofit researching human, animal and environmental health, said, "There was a conduit from Wuhan to the provinces in South China, where the closest relative viruses [to the coronavirus] are found in bats.” It is thus possible that the virus crossed into domesticated and farmed animals and arrived in Wuhan on account of wildlife trade, he said.

Dr Daszak was a part of the four-member expert team sent by WHO, along with Professor David Heymann, Professor Marion Koopmans, and Professor John Watson.

Koopmans, the Head of the Department of Viroscience at Erasmus University Medical Center in Rotterdam, said that as part of their investigation, the team had also visited the three laboratories closest to the Huanan market in Wuhan and scrutinised their protocols and research.

"We concluded that it’s extremely unlikely there was a lab incident,” she said."

Incidentally, the three aforementioned laboratories, including the much talked about Wuhan Institute of Virology, Chinese Academy of Sciences, have been the focus of several conspiracy theories and unfounded speculations on the origins of the virus, partly fueled by internet forums and imageboards playing the market for rumours.

The incident was also heavily politicised in the US by the erstwhile Trump administration, which defunded the National Institutes of Health also blacklisted critical coronavirus research, which was going on in collaboration with the Wuhan labs.

Addressing the issue of navigating this 'special politics' over the unfounded coronavirus origin speculations, Dr Daszak said that the scientific process related to the investigation offers a way to deal with this political intrigue.

"This scientific process here -- which involves looking at data, analysing it, coming to conclusions about what it means, and making it public -- is extremely important because it allows you to do the work irrespective of the politics. There is a purity to this process, and in other scientists reacting to it. I find solace in that," he said.

The United Nations' health agency worked for months to send an international team to Wuhan to help determine how the novel coronavirus first jumped from animals to humans. But in a tense geopolitical climate, the highly sensitive mission only landed on the ground this past January -- more than a year after the first cases were detected in the Chinese city in late 2019. The independent experts, who spent four weeks in Wuhan visiting sites linked to early cases, wrapped up their mission last month without conclusive findings.

The team, which has stressed this was just a first stage in the process, is expected to publish a report with their full findings next week.

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