WHO team: Coronavirus unlikely to have leaked from China lab

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Marion Koopmans, right, and Peter Ben Embarek, center, of the World Health Organization team say farewell to their Chinese counterpart Liang Wannian, left, after a WHO-China Joint Study Press Conference held at the end of the WHO mission in Wuhan, China, Tuesday, Feb. 9, 2021. (AP Photo/Ng Han Guan)

WUHAN – The coronavirus most likely first appeared in humans after jumping from an animal, a team of international and Chinese scientists looking for the origins of COVID-19 said Tuesday, saying an alternate theory that the virus leaked from a Chinese lab was unlikely.

A closely watched visit by World Health Organization experts to Wuhan — the Chinese city where the first coronavirus cases were discovered — did not dramatically change the current understanding of the early days of the pandemic, said Peter Ben Embarek, the leader of the WHO mission.

But it did “add details to that story,” he said at a news conference as the group wrapped up a four-week visit to the city.

And it allowed the joint Chinese-WHO team to further explore the lab leak theory — which former U.S. President Donald Trump and officials from his administration had put forward without evidence — and decide it was unlikely. The Wuhan Institute of Virology is home to many different virus samples, leading to allegations that it may have been the source of the original outbreak, whether on purpose or accidentally.

Embarek, a WHO food safety and animal disease expert, said experts now consider the possibility of such a leak so improbable that it will not be suggested as an avenue of future study. But another team member, Danish scientist Thea Koelsen Fischer, told reporters that team members could not rule out the possibility of further investigation and new leads.

China had already strongly rejected the possibility of a leak and has promoted other theories. The Chinese and foreign experts considered several ideas for how the disease first ended up in humans, leading to a pandemic that has now killed more than 2.3 million people worldwide.

Embarek said the initial findings suggest the most likely pathway the virus followed was from a bat to another animal and then to humans, adding that would require further research.

“The findings suggest that the laboratory incidents hypothesis is extremely unlikely to explain the introduction of the virus to the human population," he said.