The initial spread of the coronavirus was likely transmitted from bats to humans through another animal and not from an accident in a Chinese lab, a team of World Health Organization-led international and Chinese scientists concluded in a new report released on Tuesday.
The much-anticipated 120-page report provided more details about how COVID-19 was first reported in late 2019 in Wuhan, China, but it did little to advance what is already publicly known about the origins of the virus or to dispel the skepticism among some officials in the United States and other nations about whether China fully cooperated with WHO scientists. It found that an early outbreak may have occurred at the Huanan Seafood Market in Wuhan, a so-called “wet market” that sells frozen seafood, live domesticated wildlife such as rabbits and bamboo rats, and other food, but that the virus did not necessarily originate there.
But the report is in part based on Chinese scientists’ epidemiological and molecular research that was merely reviewed by WHO’s international team, according to the report. In addition, skeptics of the report pointed to the more than 200 Chinese health institutions that entirely ruled out the coronavirus in all of the 92 cases that seemed compatible with it from among 76,253 records of respiratory illnesses in the months just before the cluster of cases in Wuhan was first reported.
“Many of the early cases were associated with the Huanan market, but a similar number of cases were associated with other markets and some were not associated with any markets,” the report said.
“Transmission within the wider community in December could account for cases not associated with the Huanan market which, together with the presence of early cases not associated with that market, could suggest that the Huanan market was not the original source of the outbreak,” it said. “Other milder cases that were not identified, however, could provide the link between the Huanan market and early cases without an apparent link to the market. No firm conclusion therefore about the role of the Huanan market in the origin of the outbreak, or how the infection was introduced into the market, can currently be drawn.”
Many of the report’s findings are not new. The team of international and Chinese scientists had already told a news conference last month in Wuhan that it suspected the virus jumped from animals to humans, but it could not determine whether there had been an intermediary host such as a bamboo rat or pangolin.
China agreed to the joint WHO-China investigation after months of negotiation. The World Health Assembly, WHO’s governing body, pressured for an investigation last year. Since it began, the pandemic has infected 127 million people and killed 2.7 million people worldwide.
— Maria Van Kerkhove (@mvankerkhove) March 30, 2021
‘All hypotheses remain’
WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, along with officials in 14 countries, said on Tuesday that the team was not provided with enough access to what they needed while they visited China.
“The team reports that the first detected case had symptom onset on the 8th of December, 2019. But to understand the earliest cases, scientists would benefit from full access to data, including biological samples from at least September 2019,” Tedros said at a briefing on the report. “In my discussions with the team, they expressed the difficulties they encountered in accessing raw data.”
He said he expected future collaborative studies to include “more timely and comprehensive data sharing” so that scientists can better discern what is going on.
“Let me say clearly that as far as WHO is concerned all hypotheses remain on the table,” said Tedros. “This report is a very important beginning, but it is not the end. We have not yet found the source of the virus, and we must continue to follow the science and leave no stone unturned as we do.”
Significantly, there also were “shared concerns” that China’s government held back the team in its search for the truth, according to the governments of Australia, Canada, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Israel, Japan, Latvia, Lithuania, Norway, Slovenia, South Korea, the United Kingdom and the United States.
The team’s report was “significantly delayed and lacked access to complete, original data and samples,” the governments said in a joint statement.
“Scientific missions like these should be able to do their work under conditions that produce independent and objective recommendations and findings,” they said. “We share these concerns not only for the benefit of learning all we can about the origins of this pandemic, but also to lay a pathway to a timely, transparent, evidence-based process for the next phase of this study as well as for the next health crises.”