WHO team urges patience after 1st look for origin of virus

Members of an international team that has released a long-awaited study of the possible origins of COVID-19 with Chinese colleagues say it’s a “first start.”

GENEVA — An international team that drew up a long-awaited study of the possible origins of COVID-19 with Chinese colleagues on Tuesday called it a “first start,” appealing for patience and noting all hypotheses — including a possible laboratory leak — cannot be fully ruled out.

Team leader Peter Ben Embarek of the World Health Organization presented the team’s first-phase look into the possible origins of the coronavirus that has left nearly 2.8 million people dead and pummeled economies since it first turned up in China over a year ago.

Ben Embarek said team members faced political pressure from “all sides,” but insisted “We were never pressured to remove critical elements in our report.” He also pointed to “privacy” issues in China that prevented sharing of some data, saying similar restrictions exist in many countries.

Joined by several team members for a news conference, Ben Embarek said that “where we did not have full access to all the raw data we wanted, that has been put as a recommendation for the future studies.”

That was a major theme: More needs to be done, and many questions remain unanswered.

“This is only a first start — we’ve only scratched the surface of this very complex set of studies that need to be conducted,” Ben Embarek said. “And we have pointed to many additional studies that should be conducted from now on.”

“This is a work in progress,” he added, “and we all have to be patient.”

Ben Embarek said it was difficult to know when — if at all — the precise origin of the pandemic will come to light. While the team believes one hypothesis that the virus could have leaked from a laboratory was not likely, it was “not impossible” either, he said.

“We haven’t seen or been able to hear or see or look at anything that would warrant different conclusions from our side,” he said.

But it its report, the team proposed further research in every area except the lab leak hypothesis — a speculative theory that was promoted by former U.S. President Donald Trump among others. It also said the role played by a seafood market where human cases were first identified was uncertain.

The report pointed to transmission of the virus from bats to humans through another animal as the most likely scenario and said that a lab leak was “extremely unlikely.”

Suspicion of China partially underpinned the theory that the virus escaped from a lab in Wuhan, the Chinese city where the virus was first identified. The report cited several reasons for all but dismissing that possibility.

“This is a dynamic process. Nothing is cast in stone. There are no firm conclusions,” Ben Embarek said. “And I think that’s how we should look at the whole outcome of this report — and this work.”

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