WHO to unveil Covid origins next week after controversially dismissing lab leak

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The World Health Organisation (WHO) will release its long-awaited report into the origins of coronavirus next week.

A team of scientists from around the world travelled to the pandemic's original epicentre Wuhan, China in January to conduct an investigation into the initial outbreak a year earlier.

Despite reportedly meeting some resistance from local officials, the probe into Huanan wet market was fruitful and WHO announced on Friday the findings will likely be made public next week.

The events that led up to SARS-CoV-2 spreading among human beings and kickstarting the global pandemic that's still raging on have been the source of much debate over the last year.

The prevailing belief has been that the coronavirus leapt from animals to humans at the wet market at the very end of 2019, but some experts have challenged this.

One theory suggests it may have come from the Wuhan Institute of Virology, a lab near the market which houses one of the largest collections of coronaviruses in the world.

Most proponents of this theory believe it was an accident, although some – including senior members of the Trump administration – insisted it was an intentional biowarfare move by the Chinese government.

Liang Wannian, team leader of the Chinese side of the WHO-China joint expert team, said in an interview this week that the lab leak theory is no longer being investigated as a possibility.

"There are various possibilities for the virus origin," she told the Global Times.

"During this joint study, our experts visited Hubei Provincial Center for Disease Control and Prevention, Wuhan Center for Disease Control and Prevention, Wuhan Institute of Virology and other institutes and bio-safety labs.

"They also had candid, deep communication with experts from those institutions. After their field visits and study, the experts team agreed unanimously that it is extremely unlikely that the virus leaked from the lab.

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"So future virus origin-tracing missions will no longer be focused on this area, unless there is new evidence."

However others in the field say the lab leak theory shouldn't be discounted just yet.

David Relman, a microbiologist at Stanford University, says the idea was never the subject of a "fair and dispassionate discussion of the facts as we know them."

Instead the theory quickly became a political issue, with American politicians using it to illustrate their anti-Chinese bias while China sprang to its own defence.

"We need a much better sense about where to place our resources and effort," he told Technology Review.

If the theory looks at all plausible, then Prof Relman says "it absolutely deserves a whole lot more attention" as it could help us predict — and prevent — the next pandemic.

  • China
  • Coronavirus

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