WHO Report Says COVID From Bats, Not Lab Leak; Chief Rebukes China

The director-general of the WHO, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, also rebuked China for sitting on key data. 

3 min read
File image of WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus and Chinese President Xi Jinping.

The World Health Organization, on Tuesday, 30 March, released the much-awaited and long-delayed report of a joint WHO-China study on the origins of COVID-19, stating that the virus most likely spread to humans from bats, through another animal.

According to the WHO report, the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19 most probably jumped from bats to humans via an intermediary animal, judging a lab leak to be an "extremely unlikely" source.

These new findings are in congruence with WHO’s previous stand, dismissing the speculative theory that the COVID pandemic is the result of a lab leak.

The director-general of the World Health Organization Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus also rebuked China for sitting on key data, AFP reported. Tedros said Tuesday the probe into Wuhan's virology labs had not gone far enough, adding that he was prepared to launch a fresh investigation.

“I do not believe that this assessment was extensive enough,” AFP quoted Ghebreyseus as telling the UN health agency’s 194-member states, in a briefing on the COVID origins report.

"Further data and studies will be needed to reach more robust conclusions," he said.

"Although the team has concluded that a laboratory leak is the least likely hypothesis, this requires further investigation, potentially with additional missions involving specialist experts, which I am ready to deploy."

What the WHO Report Says

The report presents the findings of a study initiated in July 2020, by WHO and China “to better understand the origins of the virus.”

The report states that the joint international team, comprising 17 Chinese and 17 international experts from other countries selected by the WHO, looked at four possible scenarios that could have introduced the virus:

  • Direct zoonotic transmission to humans (spillover);
  • Introduction through an intermediate host followed by spillover;
  • Introduction through the (cold) food chain;
  • Introduction through a laboratory incident.

Of the four scenarios, the study found the introduction through a laboratory incident to be an ‘extremely unlikely pathway’.

After analysing the surveillance data and cases reported to the National Notifiable Disease Reporting System (NNDRS) in China, the report concludes, “It is considered unlikely that any substantial transmission of SARS-CoV-2 infection was occurring in Wuhan during those two months (October and November 2019).”

The report goes on to say that although 92 cases were zeroes out of people exhibiting symptoms that were compatible with SARS-CoV-2 infection, further scrutiny and testing revealed that none of them were, in fact, due to SARS-CoV-2 infection, essentially ruling out the ‘lab leak theory’.

Why Is the Report Important?

The report has been marred with controversy even before its release.

The emergence of the COVID virus in humans as a result of a laboratory leak is a theory that gained momentum after former US President Donald Trump, among others, promoted it.

But with this report, WHO once again reinforces its stand, dismissing this speculation as being ‘extremely unlikely’.

However, many US officials aren’t entirely convinced of the findings, especially citing China’s involvement in the investigation.

Former US Director of the Central Intelligence Agency, Mike Pompeo who also backed this theory, said this about the new report on Twitter:

Infectious diseases expert in the US, Dr Anthony Fauci, said he would have to see the ‘raw data’ of the report more closely before he could attest to its credibility.

The report is also to be reviewed further by experts from seven different US government organisations, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the National Institute of Health, and the Department of Homeland Security, still skeptical of the data provided by the Chinese government.

The WHO team went on to say that although further research would be required to conclusively know the origin of the virus, the ‘lab leak theory’ can be ruled out.

“The next phase studies include testing wildlife samples for SARS-CoV-2 related viral sequence and antibodies, continuing surveys of Rhinolophus bats in southern provinces of China and countries around East Asia, South-East Asia, conducting further relevant traceability research studies in countries and regions with initial reports of positive results in sewage, serum, human or animal tissues/swab and other SARS-CoV-2 test by the end of 2019.”

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