WHO experts discuss coronavirus lab theory with Chinese scientists during Wuhan visit

WHO members arriving at the Wuhan Institute of Virology on Feb 3, 2021.

BEIJING (AFP, CHINA DAILY/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - World Health Organisation inspectors had very frank discussions with Chinese scientists about the source of the coronavirus pandemic, including theories that it leaked from a laboratory, the head of the probe in Wuhan told Agence France-Presse on Thursday (Feb 4).

The talks covered famous claims widely reported in global media, Dr Peter Ben Embarek said in an interview a day after he and his WHO team visited the lab.

While he did not identify specific theories, Dr Embarek described some of them as irrational and insisted that the investigators would not waste time chasing the wildest claims.

"The discussions were very frank," the food safety scientist with the United Nations health agency said by telephone from Wuhan, the central Chinese city where the coronavirus was first detected in December 2019.

"We discussed...a lot of the famous theories and so on, and what has been done to explain them," added Dr Embarek, who was based in the WHO's Beijing office for two years from 2009.

Since emerging from a 14-day hotel quarantine last week, the WHO experts have visited a number of high-profile sites linked to the pandemic origins, including a seafood market where people were first found falling ill.

The trip on Wednesday to the Wuhan Institute of Virology was one of the highest-profile events on the agenda because of the controversial theory that it was the source of the pandemic.

Scientists at the laboratory conduct research on some of the world's most dangerous diseases, including strains of bat coronaviruses similar to Covid-19.

Speculation emerged early in the pandemic that the virus could have accidentally leaked from the lab in Wuhan, although there was no evidence to back up that theory.

Then US President Donald Trump and his supporters seized on those rumours and amplified them with conspiracy theories that China deliberately leaked the virus.

Dr Embarek said discussions at the lab were useful to understand the staff's position with regard "to many of these statements and claims that everyone has seen and read about in the news".

He appeared to dismiss some of the theories, calling much of the speculation "excellent scenarios for good movies and series for the years to come".

He also emphasised that the WHO investigators would "follow science and we follow facts" in reaching their conclusions.

"If we start following and chasing ghosts here and there, we'll never move anywhere," he told AFP. "So that's also an important step that we were also able to understand where these stories are coming from."

He added that the team was "able to, in a rational way...explain why some of them are totally irrational, why some of them could make sense, and why some of them can be explained or not explained".

The team visited the institute's P4 lab - Asia's first maximum-security lab equipped to handle Class 4 pathogens such as Ebola.

Dr Peter Daszak, a British zoologist and a team member, said on social media on Wednesday that the team had an "extremely important meeting" with researchers at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, including leading scientist Shi Zhengli, who had firmly dismissed conspiracy theories that the virus was leaked from the institute in Wuhan.

"Frank, open discussion. Key questions asked and answered," Dr Daszak said in a social media post that described the meeting.

In a video interview with British television news channel Sky News, he said that China's openness and willingness to cooperate with the international expert team is being felt every day.

"They are sharing data with us that we've never seen before, that no one has seen before. They are talking with us openly about every possible pathway," he said, adding that any scientific inquires concerning people's lives are sensitive worldwide and appropriate constraints are necessary.

He stressed that on-site visits in Wuhan had enabled team members to directly pose significant questions.

"We do not just wander around and take a few pictures. We look into things and ask questions. We talked to people who collected the samples from the market that tested positive," he said.

Dr Embarek said the trip to Wuhan, which is due to conclude within the next week, would not lead to a final conclusion on how the virus jumped from animals to humans.

"We're not going to come up with the ultimate full understanding of the origins of this virus, but it will be a good first step," he said. "It will be a very robust and clear best way we will lay for how to move forward."

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