WHO says Covid-19 likely passed from bats to humans through another animal

People walk past the closed Huanan seafood market where many of the first cases were discovered in Wuhan, on Jan 23, 2021.
People walk past the closed Huanan seafood market where many of the first cases were discovered in Wuhan, on Jan 23, 2021.PHOTO: AFP

GENEVA (BLOOMBERG) - The coronavirus probably spread from bats to humans via another animal, with the likelihood it was leaked from a lab in China “extremely unlikely”, according to the long-awaited results of a joint World Health Organisation-China study into the origins of Covid-19 reported by the Associated Press. 

The findings align with what researchers said last month, at the end of their mission to Wuhan, the central Chinese city where the first Covid cases emerged at the end of 2019, and in their subsequent public comments, including to Bloomberg News.

The scientists proposed further research in every area except the lab leak hypothesis, the AP reported on Monday (March 29), citing a draft copy of the report, which it said left many questions unanswered. 

The AP received what it said appeared to be a near-final version of the report from a Geneva-based diplomat. It wasn’t clear whether the report might still be changed prior to its release, the AP said. 

The hunt for the virus’s origin has been shrouded in controversy since the start of the pandemic, with China criticised for delaying access to scientists and both Beijing and Washington pushing alternate theories about how Covid began.

The report’s release has been repeatedly delayed, raising questions about whether the Chinese side was trying to skew the conclusions to divert blame for the pandemic, according to the AP.

The WHO has said the results of the mission to Wuhan, which concluded more than six weeks ago, would be ready in a few days. 

PANDEMIC PREVENTION

While the search has become highly politicised, governments and scientists agree that deciphering the virus’s creation story is key to reducing the risk of future pandemics.

The research - conducted by a team made up of both international and Chinese experts - was aimed at galvanising efforts to trace the origin of the virus that touched off the worst pandemic in more than a century, as well as its route of transmission to humans and the possible role of an intermediate animal host. 

The draft report as detailed by the AP provides more evidence for why the researchers consider a spillover from bats via another animal a more likely cause of the pandemic than two other controversial hypotheses explored: that the global contagion resulted from a laboratory accident or was introduced by contaminated food or its packaging, according to the AP. 

The US government has questioned whether the WHO-convened experts were given enough access to reach a reliable conclusion.

Top Biden administration officials on Sunday expressed concern about the way the WHO-China report was crafted, including the possibility that the Chinese government had a hand in writing it. 

The US has “real concerns about the methodology and the process” of the report, including that the Chinese government “apparently helped to write it", Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on CNN. 

China has been trying to deflect criticism of its handling of the pandemic amid growing scrutiny over the pathogen’s origins, including speculation promoted by the former Trump administration that the Sars-CoV-2 virus leaked from a Wuhan lab. 

Beijing has suggested the virus may have arrived in China through refrigerated goods and has urged the WHO to carry out investigations in other countries.