Mar 29, 2021 - World

Long-awaited WHO-China report inconclusive on coronavirus origins

WHO-China team of scientists

Experts from the WHO-China team at a press conference on Feb. 9. Photo: Zhang Chang/China News Service via Getty Images

A report from a team of scientists assembled by the World Health Organization and China leaves unresolved the question of where the coronavirus originated, but calls the possibility that it leaked from a laboratory "extremely unlikely," according to a copy obtained by Axios.

Why it matters: The process of investigating the origins of the virus has been fraught with geopolitical tensions, and the report set to be released on Tuesday will likely create more questions than it answers.

The big picture: The U.S. has expressed concerns about a lack of transparency from Chinese authorities since the early days of the COVID-19 outbreak in the city of Wuhan. The Trump administration pulled the U.S. out of the WHO last year and accused the global health agency of being beholden to China.

  • Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on CNN last week that the Biden administration has "real concerns about the methodology and the process that went into that report, including the fact that the government in Beijing apparently helped to write it."
  • Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian shot back on Monday, saying: “The U.S. has been speaking out on the report. By doing this, isn’t the U.S. trying to exert political pressure on the members of the WHO expert group?"

Key takeaways: The report lists four scenarios that investigators examined and assesses the likelihood of each.

  • Possible to likely: Direct zoonotic spillover
  • Likely to very likely: Introduction through an intermediate host
  • Possible: Introduction through cold/ food chain products
  • Extremely unlikely: Introduction through a laboratory incident

Other findings: 

  • It's "considered unlikely" that the coronavirus was substantially circulating in Wuhan in October and November, before it was detected in December.
  • It's unclear what role the Huanan seafood market played in the origin of the outbreak in Wuhan, or how the virus was introduced into the market. 
  • It's also far from clear that bats or pangolins are the reservoir of the virus that causes COVID, and "the high susceptibility of mink and cats" to the virus points the finger at other potential animal reservoirs. 
  • Studies from other countries that detected positive samples earlier than the first detected case in Wuhan suggest "the possibility of missed circulation in other countries."
  • The report suggests the virus could have even been imported into China via cold-chain products — a claim frequently promoted by Chinese government officials.

Between the lines: Questions about Beijing's influence on the investigation will be hard to shake.

  • The WHO team scrapped plans to issue an interim report in February amid calls from some international scientists for a new investigation, after it emerged that Chinese authorities refused to provide the team with raw, underlying data on early COVID cases.
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