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WHO investigators say COVID-19 almost certainly didn't come from lab

A masked security guard stands in front of a hotel where members of World Health Organization held a press briefing on Tuesday about their investigation into the origins of the coronavirus pandemic, in Wuhan, China. Photo by Alex Plavevski/EPA-EFE
A masked security guard stands in front of a hotel where members of World Health Organization held a press briefing on Tuesday about their investigation into the origins of the coronavirus pandemic, in Wuhan, China. Photo by Alex Plavevski/EPA-EFE

Feb. 9 (UPI) -- A team of scientists led by the World Health Organization said in an update Tuesday that its investigation into the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic is still looking into how the virus behaved before it was transmitted to humans.

At a briefing, the team said there's no definitive evidence yet to indicate the first human coronavirus transmission occurred at a market in Wuhan, but stated conclusively that it almost certainly didn't come from any lab.

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WHO expert Peter BenEmbarek said at the briefing that if the virus did not originate in Wuhan, there is no evidence of large clusters of the virus until its discovery at a Huanan market in December 2019.

One working assumption, he said, is that the virus jumped from an intermediary species to a human, possibly through cold chain products at the market.

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"We are still working with the hypothesis that it could have been introduced by a person who was infected and then spread to other persons in the market," Embarek said. "But it could also be through the introduction of a product.

"Among the more interesting products were frozen farmed wild animals. Some of these species are known to be susceptible to these kinds of viruses."

Embarek said while the WHO investigation into the outbreak's origins still points to a natural reservoir in bats, he believes it unlikely that they would have been in Wuhan at the time of the initial transmission.

A conspiracy theory that the COVID-19 came from a lab in Wuhan was "extremely unlikely," Embarek said and will not be further investigated. The Trump administration had pushed such a theory last May.

The scientific team has been working for weeks to discover how the coronavirus was transmitted at the start of the pandemic, more than a year ago. It has visited hospitals and labs, including the Wuhan Institute of Virology and Wuhan Center for Disease Control laboratory.

Beijing health official Liang Wannian said COVID-19 could have been circulating in other regions before it was identified in Wuhan and there was no substantial spread of the virus in the city before the outbreak.

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When asked about the conclusions from the WHO and Chinese experts, State Department spokesman Ned Price told reporters during a press briefing in Washington, D.C., that they will wait until they can see their report before making any conclusions.

"We look forward to receiving this report and the full data and digging into that ourselves," he said.

Under the former Trump administration, the United States had criticized China for covering up its initial outbreak of the virus and the WHO for allegedly aiding it in doing so.

China also denied the need for international experts to investigate the origins of the virus, and the WHO team only arrived in Wuhan following months of delays and negotiations between Chinese officials and the WHO after the U.N. health body passed a resolution in May to establish an independent probe of the virus' origins.

Price told reporters that the State Department has expressed concerns over China's lack of transparency and cooperation when it comes to the virus and concerning whether this probe alleviated those worries, Price said "the jury is out."

"We clearly support this investigation," he said. "We recognize there is an urgent need for an investigation, but I wouldn't want to be conclusive yet about any sort of cooperation that the WHO may or may not have received from China."

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