1 report, 4 theories: Scientists mull clues on virus’ origin

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FILE - In this file photo dated Saturday, Feb. 6, 2021, a worker in protectively overalls and carrying disinfecting equipment walks outside the Wuhan Central Hospital where Li Wenliang, the whistleblower doctor who sounded the alarm and was reprimanded by local police for it in the early days of Wuhan's pandemic, worked in Wuhan in central China. A lengthy written report published Thursday March 25, 2021, from a team of international and Chinese scientists on a joint mission to Wuhan aims to help unearth the origins of the coronavirus since it was first detected in China more than a year ago. (AP Photo/Ng Han Guan, FILE)

GENEVA – A team of international and Chinese scientists is poised to report on its joint search for the origins of the coronavirus that sparked a pandemic after it was first detected in China over a year ago — with four theories being considered, and one the clear frontrunner, according to experts.

The lengthy report is being published after months of wrangling, notably between U.S. and Chinese governments, over how the outbreak emerged, while scientists try to keep their focus on a so-far fruitless search for the origin of a microbe that has killed over 2.7 million people and stifled economies worldwide.

It wasn’t immediately clear when the report will be released after its publication was delayed earlier this month. By many accounts, the report could offer few concrete answers, and may raise further questions.

It will offer a first glance in writing from 10 international epidemiologists, data scientists, veterinary, lab and food safety experts who visited China and the city of Wuhan — where a market was seen as the initial epicenter — earlier this year to work with Chinese counterparts who pulled up the bulk of early data.

Critics have raised questions about the objectivity of the team, insisting that China's government had a pivotal say over its composition. Defenders of the World Health Organization, which assembled the team, say it can't simply parachute in experts to tell a country what to do — let alone one as powerful as China.

“I expect that this report will only be a first step into investigating the origins of the virus and that the WHO secretariat will probably say this," said Matthew Kavanagh, director of Georgetown University's Global Health Policy and Governance Initiative at the O’Neill Institute. “And I expect some to criticize this as insufficient. I think it is key to keep in mind that WHO has very limited powers."

The Wuhan trip is billed as Phase 1 in a vast undertaking to flesh out the origins of the virus.

The WHO has bristled at depictions of the mission as an "investigation" — saying that smacks of an invasive forensic probe that wasn't called for under the resolution adopted unanimously by the agency's member states in May that paved the way for the collaboration. The WHO and China later ironed out the ground rules.