The World Health Organization says it has not ruled out any theory on the origins of the coronavirus pandemic, despite one top official earlier this week appearing to dismiss the idea it had escaped from a laboratory.
Speaking at a briefing on Friday, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of the WHO, said a summary report from the organization’s team sent to Wuhan to investigate the origins of the virus should be published next week, with a full report coming soon after.
But he confirmed that while the scientists made progress in understanding the circumstances around the outbreak in Wuhan in late 2019, more work was needed on all of the potential routes the virus may have taken into the human population.
“Some questions have been raised as to whether some hypotheses have been discarded,” he told reporters. “Having spoken with some members of the team, I wish to confirm that all hypotheses remain open and require further analysis and studies.” He said more experts could join the team to achieve that work.
Ghebreyesus said the mission had not been expected to find all the answers, but had found “important information that takes us closer to understanding the origins of the virus.”
“The mission achieved a better understanding of the early days of the pandemic, identified further areas for further analysis and research and we will continue working to get the information we need to answer the questions that still need to be answered,” he said.
Global cases of coronavirus fell for the fourth week running, and deaths for the second consecutive week, as countries tightened restrictions. Ghebreyesus said those who considered it impossible to vaccinate the world were “dead wrong” and called for vaccine manufacturing to be ramped up and shared equitably around the world.
Earlier in the week, Peter Ben Embarek, the WHO’s food safety and animal disease specialist and chair of the investigation team, said the idea that the virus had escaped from a laboratory – a recurring claim of Donald Trump’s – was “extremely unlikely” and not worthy of further study.
But on Friday, Embarek left the option open. “What we’ve been told by the different labs in Wuhan that we visited and discussed this with is that none of these were working on or had the Sars-Cov-2 virus in their collections or in their labs and that’s in line with what other labs around the world have said, that this virus has not been worked with knowingly in any labs around world.”
“It’s always possible the virus is, and was, present in samples that have not yet been processed, or among viruses that have not yet been characterised, but knowingly, apparently from all the labs we’ve talked with, nobody has seen this virus before. If that had been the case, we’d have probably seen it mentioned in research publications,” he said.
The teams investigation focused on animals that may have harboured the virus before spreading it to humans, potentially at a wet market in Wuhan. Tests on 30,000 animals of different species from different locations failed to find an obvious reservoir for the virus, the investigators said, while the suppliers of wild animal products to the market had been traced to look for further clues.
“We still are far away from understanding the origin and identifying animal species or the pathways by which the virus could have entered the human in December, Ben Embarek said. “We knew before going there that it would take a long time and a lot of effort to get there. It’s just a start, but we have made a lot of progress.”