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WHO just finished investigating whether the coronavirus escaped from a Wuhan lab

Published Feb 9th, 2021 3:29PM EST
Coronavirus Pandemic Origin
Image: karn/Adobe

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  • The World Health Organization sent a team of experts to Wuhan to investigate the origins of the novel coronavirus pandemic, and it has wrapped up the official investigation.
  • Investigators concluded that the likeliest explanation for the pandemic is an infection from an unidentified animal.
  • The WHO said that the hypothesis that the virus escaped accidentally from a lab in Wuhan lab “extremely unlikely” and will not be investigated in future studies.

The joint coronavirus investigation between the World Health Organization (WHO) and China has reached its end after a team of international experts finally visited Wuhan in search of the pandemic’s origin. The formal investigation came more than a year after the first COVID-19 cases were discovered in Wuhan, and the first conclusions seem to confirm what was suspected before the team’s venture in China. The likeliest explanation for the pandemic is an unknown animal that passed the virus to humans. But WHO experts seemed to be categorical about the scenario that many conspiracy theories fans favored.

From the early days of the pandemic, conspiracy theories went viral online claiming that the virus had either been manufactured in a Wuhan lab or accidentally escaped from it. In his last days in office, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo reignited the idea that the virus had leaked from a lab, just as the WHO investigation was underway. The WHO team now says the hypothesis that the virus emerged from a lab is unlikely, going as far as to state that the possibility won’t even be entertained in future investigations.

“Our initial findings suggest that the introduction through an intermediary host species is the most likely pathway and one that will require more studies and more specific targeted research,” WHO food safety and animal diseases expert Peter Ben Embarek said at a news conference on Tuesday. “However, the findings suggest that the laboratory incidents hypothesis is extremely unlikely to explain the introduction of the virus to the human population,” he said, adding that it will not be suggested as an avenue of future study.

Embarek also noted that transmission through the transport of frozen products is also a possibility. That’s one of the various alternative pandemic origin stories that China offered in recent months in an attempt to deflect blame for the pandemic. China saw plenty of criticism last year for how it handled the pandemic in the early weeks, with reports highlighting several delays that might have contributed to the spread of the illness. China’s transparency and unwillingness to allow an international investigation was also questioned. All the while, China attempted to paint a different picture, highlighting its effectiveness and leadership at fighting the illness.

The WHO did not say which animal might have been the host, or intermediary, before the novel coronavirus made the jump to humans. It’s unclear what the final conclusions will look like or what the next steps will be to identify the source and/or missing link.

According to The Associated Press, the WHO team arrived in Wuhan from Singapore on January 14th and then spent the first two weeks working via video conference while in quarantine at a hotel. The report notes that a different member of the WHO team said late last week that they enjoyed a greater level of openness than initially anticipated. The WHO team was granted full access to all the sites and personnel they had requested. British zoologist Peter Daszak also said the team looked at the first cases, the links with animals, and the role of frozen food imported in the region.

Chris Smith Senior Writer

Chris Smith has been covering consumer electronics ever since the iPhone revolutionized the industry in 2008. When he’s not writing about the most recent tech news for BGR, he brings his entertainment expertise to Marvel’s Cinematic Universe and other blockbuster franchises.

Outside of work, you’ll catch him streaming almost every new movie and TV show release as soon as it's available.