World Health Organization report finds coronavirus 'extremely unlikely' to be result of lab leak

Security personnel gather near the entrance to the Wuhan Institute of Virology during a visit by a World Health Organisation team to Wuhan in China's Hubei province on Wednesday 3 February 2021

Security personnel gather near the entrance to the Wuhan Institute of Virology during a visit by a World Health Organisation team to Wuhan in China's Hubei province on Wednesday 3 February 2021

Peter Daszak (R), Vladimir G. Dedkov ( L) and other members of the World Health Organization (WHO) team investigating the origins of the Covid-19 coronavirus, leave the Hubei Center for animal disease control and prevention in Wuhan, China's central Hubei province on February 2, 2021.

Delays in the publication of the final report, drafted in collaboration with the team's Chinese counterparts, has been blamed on coordination and translation issues.

In sharp contrast, people in England were set for what newspapers dubbed "Happy Monday", with stay-at-home orders relaxed as rapid vaccinations appeared to drive down infection rates there.

The head of the World Health Organization has criticised China for withholding information on the origins of the pandemic and has not ruled out the possibility that the virus escaped from a laboratory.

The report was not public yet, he added.

Tedros said the global experts would hold a press conference on Tuesday to discuss their findings.

The repeated delays sparked renewed criticism of the United Nations health agency's slow actions in getting the team to Wuhan in the first place.

The findings confirm what researchers said in mid-February at the conclusion of their four-week mission to Wuhan, the central Chinese city where the first COVID-19 cases emerged at the end of 2019, and in subsequent interviews.

In the 15 months since the coronavirus emerged, the pandemic has engulfed the planet, killing almost 2.8 million people and pummelling the global economy.

"It's very exhilarating, it's absolutely fantastic for managing both mental and physical health". The report cited several reasons for all but dismissing that possibility.

But the highly-anticipated document offered few firm conclusions.

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He said investigators had reported difficulties in "accessing raw data" and "would benefit from full access to data including biological samples from at least September 2019".

Dutch virologist and team member Marion Koopmans rejected the focus on the unanswered questions, stressing on Twitter that the experts had presented a huge amount of information. "No single research trip can provide all the answers", he said.

But they said they had worked to rank a number of hypotheses according to how likely they were. 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.

But the investigation has not found what other animal was infected by a bat - considered the most likely original source of the virus - and then may have transmitted it to a human.

"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.

"The scenario including introduction through an intermediary host was considered to be likely to very likely", though it was not clear which animal may have allowed the jump.

Marion Koopmans, a Dutch virologist who was a member of the World Health Organization delegation, said in an interview this month that while the first major clusters were reported in Wuhan, it's not known for sure whether the virus originated there.

They evaluated direct spread from bats to humans as likely, and said that spread through "cold-chain" food products was possible but not likely.

"There is no conclusive evidence for foodborne transmission of SARS-CoV-2 and the probability of a cold-chain contamination with the virus from a reservoir is very low", it says.

China has been trying to deflect criticism of its handling of the pandemic amid growing scrutiny over the pathogen's origins, including speculation promoted by the former Trump administration that the SARS-CoV-2 virus leaked from a Wuhan lab. She also acknowledged that it's possible milder of cases of the virus may have been circulating before the outbreak in Wuhan was declared in December 2019.

"It supports our current picture of the start of the pandemic", said Joel Wertheim, an associate professor of medicine at the University of California, San Diego, who reviewed part of the report but didn't take part in the research.

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