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WHO says ‘frozen food’ may have started Covid but rules out lab leak

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A team of investigators looking into the origins of coronavirus in China have given their first major update since arriving almost a month ago.

The World Health Organization (WHO) investigators have had nearly a month of meetings and site visits in Wuhan, where the disease was first identified, and have now ruled out a laboratory leak and said it may have been imported into the Chinese city in frozen meat.

Saying their findings show previously-made claims that the virus came from a lab are "extremely unlikely", the WHO investigative team has said that an animal intermediary is the most likely source of SARS-CoV-2 – although it is still unclear exactly which animal it came from.

"The findings suggest lab incident hypothesis is extremely unlikely to explain the introduction of the virus into the human population," Dr Peter Ben Embarek, leader of the World Health Organisation team investigating the origins of the virus in Wuhan.

The team arrived in Wuhan on January 14 and after two weeks of quarantine, visited key sites like 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.

They have said it is still not clear what the animal source of the virus is, but that more study is needed to determine whether it came from pangolins or bats.

Dr Embarek said: "Since Wuhan is not a city or environment close to this environment, a direct jump from bats to the city of Wuhan is not very likely."

He added: "The search for the possible route of introduction through different animal species and the specific reservoir are still a work in progress."

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Professor Liang Wannian, the lead Chinese envoy who is working on the investigation, said: “The high susceptibility of mink and cats to Sars-Cov-2 suggest there may be additional species of animals – for example dogs or felines – that act as potential reservoir.”

The team says more work needs to be done to understand "the possible role of the cold chain, frozen products in the introduction of the virus over a distance”.

Dr Embarek added: "We know that the virus can persist and survive in conditions that are found in these cold and frozen environments.

"But we don't really understand if the virus can then transmit to humans and under which conditions this could happen."

The team added that there is no evidence to show SARS-CoV2 spread in Wuhan before December 2019 – and that it may have circulated elsewhere before the outbreak in the Chinese city.

Professor Liang added: "Based on analysis of this and other surveillance data is is considered unlikely that any substantial transmission of Sars-Cov-2 infection was occurring in Wuhan in those two months [prior to discovery]."

Members of the team have previously 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."

He also recently said his team found “important clues” about the role that the Huanan “wet market” in central Wuhan played in the pandemic that has so far cost over two million lives worldwide.

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.

  • China
  • World Health Organisation
  • Coronavirus

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