Emergency room nurses wear face masks at Second People’s Hospital of Shenzhen in China in February 2020. (Man Yi/UN photo)

White House, WHO Leader Say Report Finding COVID Lab Leak ‘Extremely Unlikely’ Fell Short

The White House and the head of the World Health Organization both said Tuesday that an initial report from WHO on the origins of COVID-19 was not nearly adequate to answer pressing questions about the disease that has killed more than 2.8 million people worldwide.

The 120-page report, a joint study conducted with China this year from Jan. 14 to Feb. 10, said that “many of the early cases were associated with” the Huanan Wholesale Seafood Market in Wuhan, China, “but a similar number of cases were associated with other markets and some were not associated with any markets… 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.”

Investigators determined that the outbreak “may have started some time in the months before the middle of December 2019” and “findings suggest that circulation of SARS-CoV-2 preceded the initial detection of cases by several weeks.”

“Some of the suspected positive samples were detected even earlier than the first case in Wuhan, suggesting the possibility of missed circulation in other countries,” the WHO report added. “So far, however, the quality of the studies is limited. Nonetheless, it is important to investigate these potential early events.”

Studying related coronaviruses in animals including horseshoe bats and pangolins revealed that “the presence of SARS-CoV-2 has not been detected through sampling and testing of bats or of wildlife across China.”

“More than 80 000 wildlife, livestock and poultry samples were collected from 31 provinces in China and no positive result was identified for SARS-CoV-2 antibody or nucleic acid before and after the SARS-CoV-2 outbreak in China,” the report said. “Through extensive testing of animal products in the Huanan market, no evidence of animal infections was found,” though “widespread contamination of surfaces” was found through testing at the market when it first closed at the beginning of the pandemic.

“The supply chains to Huanan market included cold-chain products and animal products from 20 countries, including those where samples have been reported as positive for SARS-CoV-2 before the end of 2019 and those where close relatives of SARS-CoV-2 are found. There is evidence that some domesticated wildlife the products of which were sold in the market are susceptible to SARS-CoV, but none of the animal products sampled in the market tested positive in this study,” the report continued. “In the early phase of pandemic, due to lack of awareness of the potential role of cold chain in virus introduction and transmission, the cold-chain products were not tested. These findings, however, do raise the possibility of different potential pathways of introduction. Preliminary sampling and testing of other markets in Wuhan and upstream suppliers to the Huanan market taken during 2020 did not reveal evidence of SARS-CoV-2 circulating in animals.”

The team said it would further analyze frozen and refrigerated products that came into the Huanan market. “SARS-CoV-2 has been found to persist in conditions found in frozen food, packaging and cold-chain products,” the report said. “Index cases in recent outbreaks in China have been linked to the cold chain; the virus has been found on packages and products from other countries that supply China with cold-chain products, indicating that it can be carried long distances on cold-chain products.”

The report concluded that “direct zoonotic spillover is considered to be a possible-to-likely pathway” for COVID-19 to have begun infecting humans, “introduction through an intermediate host is considered to be a likely to very likely pathway” (the report suggested high-density domesticated wild animal farms), “introduction through cold/food chain products is considered a possible pathway,” and “introduction through a laboratory incident was considered to be an extremely unlikely pathway.”

“The Wuhan CDC lab which moved on 2nd December 2019 reported no disruptions or incidents caused by the move,” the report said of the lab accident theory. “They also reported no storage nor laboratory activities on CoVs or other bat viruses preceding the outbreak.”

Asked at Wednesday’s press briefing whether China has really cooperated with the probe, White House press secretary Jen Psaki replied that “they have not been transparent.”

“They have not provided underlying data. That certainly doesn’t qualify as cooperation,” she said. “You know, the analysis performed to date from our experts, their concern is that there isn’t additional support for one hypothesis. It doesn’t lead us to any closer of an understanding or greater knowledge than we had six to nine months ago about the origin.”

“It also doesn’t provide us guidelines or recommended steps on how we should prevent this from happening in the future,” she added. “And those are imperative.”

Psaki said the administration believes “there are steps that can be taken moving forward to ensure that an independent investigation — that global experts are involved in the next stage of this process.”

WHO Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said after the report was presented that the document “raises further questions that will need to be addressed by further studies.”

“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,” he said. “In my discussions with the team, they expressed the difficulties they encountered in accessing raw data. I expect future collaborative studies to include more timely and comprehensive data sharing.”

Tedros said “the role of animal markets is still unclear” after the study and called for a “full analysis of the trade in animals and products in markets across Wuhan, particularly those linked to early human cases.”

On the possibility of a lab leak, the WHO leader said, “I do not believe that this assessment was extensive enough. Further data and studies will be needed to reach more robust conclusions.”

“Although the team has concluded that a laboratory leak is the least likely hypothesis, this requires further investigation, potentially with additional missions involving specialist experts, which I am ready to deploy,” Tedros said. “…Let me say clearly that as far as WHO is concerned all hypotheses remain on the table.”

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Bridget Johnson is the Managing Editor for Homeland Security Today. A veteran journalist whose news articles and analyses have run in dozens of news outlets across the globe, Bridget first came to Washington to be online editor and a foreign policy writer at The Hill. Previously she was an editorial board member at the Rocky Mountain News and syndicated nation/world news columnist at the Los Angeles Daily News. Bridget is a senior fellow specializing in terrorism analysis at the Haym Salomon Center. She is a Senior Risk Analyst for Gate 15, a private investigator and a security consultant. She is an NPR on-air contributor and has contributed to USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, New York Observer, National Review Online, Politico, New York Daily News, The Jerusalem Post, The Hill, Washington Times, RealClearWorld and more, and has myriad television and radio credits including Al-Jazeera, BBC and SiriusXM.

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