Feb 14, 2021 - World

WHO scientists traced 13 COVID-19 strains to Wuhan from late 2019

Wuhan Institute of Virology

Security personnel stand guard outside the Wuhan Institute of Virology as the WHO team studies the origins of the COVID-19 on Feb. 3. Photo: Hector Retamal/AFP via Getty Images

There were 13 different strains of the coronavirus in Wuhan, China in December 2019, World Health Organization scientist Peter Ben Embarek told CNN in an exclusive interview.

Why it matters: Data gathered during the WHO scientists' first trip to investigate the origins of COVID-19 could point to an outbreak that was more widespread than previously understood.

  • Some virologists believe that multiple strains in Wuhan as early as December could suggest that the virus had previously spread undetected.
  • Embarek, a lead investigator for WHO's mission to Wuhan, declined to draw conclusions on this in his CNN interview.

Of note: WHO scientists also say that it's "extremely unlikely" the virus came from a laboratory accident — debunking a conspiracy theory that had taken root among some Americans in late 2020.

What to watch: WHO scientists hope to return to Wuhan to continue investigations, Embarek said.

Go deeper: WHO's COVID probe in China raises more questions than it answers

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