The World Health Organisation team examining the origins of the pandemic has concluded it was ‘extremely unlikely’ the coronavirus leaked from a Chinese laboratory.
After almost a month in the Chinese city of Wuhan, investigators believe the coronavirus “most likely” originated in animals before infecting humans.
The team suspects there may be some credibility to China’s theory that the virus can be transmitted by frozen food and will investigate the possibility of transmission via cold chain (frozen) products.
It comes after China has repeatedly announced findings of coronavirus traces on imported food packaging.
But the team which spoke at a WHO-China Joint Study Press Conference to announce their findings still doesn’t know how the virus got into the Huanan seafood market, where it was first detected.
They have yet to find any evidence of the virus circulating in Wuhan before December 2019, when the first cases were discovered in the city.
Therefore the picture of the outbreak has not dramatically changed, said Peter Ben Embarek, a WHO specialist in animal diseases who leads the independent group of experts.
“We know the virus can survive in conditions that are found in these cold, frozen environments, but we don’t really understand if the virus can transmit to humans” or under which conditions, he told the briefing, which was held at the end of the WHO mission in Wuhan.
Mr Embarek said it would be worthwhile to explore whether a frozen wild animal in a market setting with the right conditions could be conducive to rapid spread of the virus.
He said that work to identify the origins of the coronavirus points to a natural reservoir in bats, but it is unlikely that they were in Wuhan.
He also said investigators were looking at whether the virus was circulating earlier than first thought, and that blood samples needed to be found to conduct further research.
The possibility that the virus leaked from a lab – another hypothesis – was “extremely unlikely” and did not require further study, Mr Embarek told the briefing.
The team arrived in Wuhan on January 14 and after two weeks of quarantine, visited key sites including the Huanan seafood market, the location of the first known cluster of infections, as well as the Wuhan Institute of Virology, which has been involved in coronavirus research.
Members of the team have sought to rein in expectations about the mission, with zoologist Peter Daszak telling Reuters last week that one of their aims was to “identify the next steps to fill in the gaps”.
Another team member, infectious disease expert Dominic Dwyer, said it would probably take years to fully understand the origins of COVID-19.
The United States said China needed to be more open when it comes to sharing data and samples as well as allowing access to patients, medical staff and lab workers.
Beijing subsequently accused Washington of politicising a scientific mission.