World Health Organization report says animals likeliest origin of Covid-19, minimises lab hypothesis

Covid 'most likely' came from bats and China lab leak theory 'extremely unlikely' WHO report concludes

The most productive research would be to look for such an animal link, scientists said, after finding it improbable the virus resulted from a laboratory incident, according to a copy of the report obtained before its scheduled release later Tuesday.

"I'd also would like to inquire as to the extent in which the people who were on that group had access directly to the data that they would need to make a determination", he said. The research was aimed at galvanizing efforts to trace the origin of the virus that touched off the worst pandemic in more than a century, as well as its route of transmission to humans and the possible role of an intermediate animal host.

The rankings did not differ substantially from what experts said in Wuhan in February, at which time they had already announced they believed the lab-leak theory was considered the least likely.

The final report of an worldwide expert mission to the Chinese city where the first Covid-19 outbreak happened in late 2019 says the coronavirus causing the disease most likely had a zoonotic origin, according to news agencies citing leaked copies of the report.

It also said the introduction of the virus into China through frozen food would have been "extraordinary" in December 2019, given the virus had not been detected elsewhere at that time.

- Direct transmission - This hypothesis, deemed "possible to likely", assumes that SARS-CoV-2 jumped directly from the original host, likely a bat, to humans.

The investigative team of 34 Chinese and global scientists, says it remains "possible" the virus entered Wuhan through frozen food, imported from another area of China or even from overseas - although there is scant evidence to support this in the report or its annexes.

"Many of the early cases were associated with the Huanan market, but a similar number of cases were associated with other markets and some were not associated with any markets", the report added.

The report was written by a group of scientists from World Health Organization following a 27-day trip earlier this year to Wuhan, China, where the first cases of the virus were reported.

The experts examined only the theory that the natural virus escaped a lab through the accidental infection of staff.

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The report did not rule out transmission through frozen food, since the virus has been shown to survive on frozen food packages, and listed the theory as "possible".

"We've got real concerns about the methodology and the process that went into that report", he said. "And we're bolstering our defenses, but this war's far from won".

"There's no compelling evidence of people actually being infected through packaging", he said, calling the theory "far-fetched".

"The emergence of a new [disease] is always a sequence of unlikely events", he said. But he said most scientists agree that bats are the most likely source. The researchers recommended tracing the origin of SARS-CoV-2 worldwide in farmed and wild animals species likely to harbor coronaviruses, such as ferret-badgers, civets, mink and raccoon dogs, especially in areas where little research has been undertaken and where animal viruses are most likely to spill over to people.

"Although the closest related viruses have been found in bats, the evolutionary distance between these bat viruses and SARS-CoV-2 is estimated to be several decades, suggesting a missing link", the report said. A second diplomat confirmed getting the report too.

"All hypotheses are on the table and warrant complete and further studies", he said at a news conference.

It offered new details on the World Health Organization team's work, particularly in the Huanan seafood market, responsible for a large cluster of cases and initially thought to be the source of the outbreak.

Research published a year ago in the journal Lancet suggested the market may have merely served to further spread the disease rather than being its source. The earliest known cases of the coronavirus were identified in Wuhan.

The report noted that animal products, including everything from bamboo rats to deer, often frozen, were sold at the market, as were live crocodiles.

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