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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.

Go deeper

Mar 28, 2021 - World

Blinken evasive on punishing China for COVID handling

Secretary of State Antony Blinken evaded questions about whether the U.S. would seek retaliatory actions against China for its handling of the coronavirus outbreak during an interview on CNN's "State of the Union" Sunday, instead saying that the focus should be on preventing another pandemic in the future.

Why it matters: The diplomat said there should be "accountability for the past," positioning himself in contrast to his predecessor Mike Pompeo, who had called for China to be punished, per CNN.

What they're saying: "I think the issue for us is to make sure that we do everything possible to prevent another pandemic, even as we're working through this one, or at the very least, to make sure that we can mitigate in much more effective ways any damage done if something happens in the future," Blinken said.

  • A large part of preparing for a future pandemic, Blinken said, would be having "a system in place, including with the World Health Organization that features transparency, that features information sharing, and features access for international experts at the start of something like this."
  • "[T]hat's going to require a lot of reform, and that's going to require China to do things that it hasn’t done in the past."

Blinken also expressed concern about a forthcoming WHO report on the origins of the coronavirus outbreak because of the Chinese government's role in helping author it.

Flashback: During his confirmation hearing in January, Blinken said the that China had misled the world with regards to the coronavirus outbreak, per the New York Times.

Mar 29, 2021 - Health

Former NSC official raises concerns of interference in pandemic probe

Screenshot of Jamie Metzl. Photo: CBS

The World Health Organization's probe into the COVID-19 pandemic origins is not an investigation, it's "essentially a highly chaperoned, highly curated study tour," a WHO adviser and former Clinton administration official told CBS' "60 Minutes" Sunday.

Why it matters: Jamie Metzl's comments that China's government set the mission's ground rules and had "veto power" over who could be on the research team add to concerns raised by the Biden administration and others that the Chinese Communist Party may have interfered in the investigation.

Caitlin Owens, author of Vitals
Mar 29, 2021 - Health

Millions of Americans remain vulnerable as variants drive up cases

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Coronavirus cases are on the rise again in several states, partially a result of variants of the virus becoming more widespread, experts say.

Why it matters: Even though a remarkable 72% of Americans 65 and older have received at least one dose of the vaccine, millions of Americans — particularly younger Americans with underlying conditions — remain vulnerable.