After two weeks of investigation in Wuhan on the origin of the coronavirus, experts from the World Health Organization (WHO) appeared on Tuesday at a highly anticipated press conference. The expectation was highest among the thirty media displaced to Wuhan. Although the occasion was historical because the whole planet awaited the results of their investigations, no big revelations were expected nor, much less, nothing that could bother China due to the politicization of the pandemic due to its high human and economic cost.
While waiting for their report to be finalized, the head of the mission, the expert in food safety and zoonosis Peter Ben Embarek, gave some of the keys together with the virologist Marion Koopmans and the Chinese epidemiologist Liang Wannian. His main conclusion is that rule out coronavirus leak from ‘superlab’ P4 which houses the Wuhan Institute of Virology, at the center of the controversy over the accusations of the United States during the Trump presidency. But, yes, without evidence. In addition, the WHO has taken up one of China’s arguments, which points out that the coronavirus was able to enter through frozen food in the Huanan animal market, where some of the first cases were detected.
«Of the four hypotheses that exist, we recommend continuing to investigate the direct passage, or through an intermediate species, of the coronavirus from an animal to the human being and the transmission through frozen surfaces, but the possibility of an accident in the laboratory is highly unlikely, ”Ben Embarek explained. To reach this conclusion, he assured that “we have moved away from the perceptions and opinions that circulate about the origin of the coronavirus and we have adopted a rational mindset.” His conviction is based on that «We have had a lot of contact with scientists from the Wuhan Institute of Virology and a long, frank and open discussion with management and staff. They gave us a very detailed description of their health surveillance programs, their audits and their projects with coronavirus and some of their more advanced work, such as the improvement of functions (a very controversial technique that consists of enhancing a coronavirus to analyze it and prepare vaccines). We have talked about the laboratory theory and listened to their explanations to disprove this accusation, so we do not think there was likely a leak. Although he acknowledged that “accidents happen from time to time and are not impossible,” he argued that “there was no place that, previously, had identified, investigated or known this virus. There were no publications or reports of this virus or others related to it in any laboratory in the world.
On the other hand, and picking up the Chinese theory that points as a source of the coronavirus to the importation of frozen food from abroad, it does advocate deepening this line. Relying on inconclusive studies that have detected the coronavirus in Europe and the US before its outbreak in Wuhan, Beijing maintains that it was in other parts of the world and entered the Huanan market through those imported frozen foods. “We have to understand more about the cold chain. The virus can survive frozen. But we do not know if it is transmitted or not, for example, by a frozen infected animal, or if the humid environment helps the spread, “reasoned the expert, who did not want to” geographically limit the investigation. In his opinion, “one possibility is that the animal has come from far away places, even crossing borders, and that is why we must continue to analyze bats, which have the coronavirus most similar to the current one, not only in China, but in other countries neighbors”.
The only thing that is clear is that, at the moment, as little is known as before about the coronavirus, which experts believe is of natural origin. “We do not know the exact role of the Huanan market. There was an outbreak in people working and shopping, but we do not know how it entered and spread. We have a map of the infections and genetic sequences of the cases. Everything tells us that the outbreak spread in December because previously no cases that could cause an outbreak were detected. But that is not the whole story because there was also spread in other people not linked to this market, but to others, and even without connection to the markets. We work with the hypothesis of a trader, or visitor, who introduced it to the market, but it could also be an animal species, ”explained Ben Embarek.
As Wuhan is not a city where there can be direct jumps from bat coronaviruses to humans, he advocated “looking for transitions to find out how it got to the Huanan market, where there was frozen food, especially seafood, but also wild animals.” To do this, the supply chain of the market vendors has been traced. Although virologist Marion Koopmans assured that “animal tests have not positive for coronavirus »He did admit that there are some suspicious species that were sold in Huanan, such as rabbits, ferrets, and bamboo rats. In addition, he recommended that “the previous circulation of the coronavirus in other places be studied more, because there are studies that detected it in Italy in December and even in November, but it is difficult to confirm because they are not conclusive.”
Despite all the questions that remain to be answered, the head of the mission, Peter Ben Embarek, announced that this investigation in China is only the beginning because “we have a lot of good material to explore and it will give us a good direction to investigate” .