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WHO Experts: Coronavirus Likely Jumped to Humans from Animals

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,
WHO Experts: Coronavirus Likely Jumped to Humans from Animals
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The coronavirus most likely first infected humans after jumping from an animal, a team of international and Chinese scientists said Tuesday.

A team of World Health Organization (WHO) experts recently completed their closely watched visit to Wuhan. The Chinese city is where the first cases of the new coronavirus were discovered. Peter Ben Embarek led the WHO investigation. He said the team’s four-week visit did not result in major changes to the current understanding of the early days of the pandemic.

But the visit did “add details to that story,” Embarek noted. It also led the joint Chinese-WHO team to dismiss the theory that the virus escaped from a laboratory.

The Wuhan Institute of Virology has collected many virus samples. This led to claims that the institute may have been the place where the outbreak started. Experts now consider the possibility extremely unlikely. Embarek said the team would not even suggest the theory as a path of future study. China had already strongly rejected that possibility and has publicly supported other theories.

The Chinese and foreign experts considered several possibilities for how the disease first appeared in humans. Embarek said the early findings suggest the most likely pathway the virus followed was from a bat to another animal and then to humans.

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

The investigation was a first step in the process of understanding the beginnings of the virus. Scientists have suggested it may have passed to humans through a wild animal, such as a pangolin or bamboo rat. It is also possible that the virus spread directly from bats to humans, or through the trade in frozen food products.

The team of WHO experts arrived in Wuhan on January 14. Among other places, the experts visited the Huanan Seafood Market. That is where an early group of cases was reported in late 2019.

Marion Koopmans is a Dutch virologist on the WHO team. She said that some animals at the market were from farms in areas that are home to bats that carry the closest related virus to the one that causes COVID-19. Koopmans said the next step would be to look more closely at farms.

Liang Wannian is the head of the Chinese side of the team of experts. He said the virus also appeared to have been spreading in other parts of Wuhan. So, it remains possible that the virus came from somewhere else.

Another member of the WHO team, zoologist Peter Daszak, told The Associated Press late last week that the experts experienced a greater level of openness than they had expected. He said team members were permitted to visit all areas they requested.

The WHO team’s visit took months to negotiate. China agreed to the visit following international pressure at the WHO’s World Health Assembly meeting last May. China has continued to resist calls for a fully independent investigation.

I’m Ashley Thompson.

The Associated Press reported this story. Ashley Thompson adapted it for VOA Learning English. Mario Ritter, Jr. was the editor.


Words in This Story

outbreak –n. the sudden start of fighting or the appearance of a disease that can spread widely

hypothesis –n. an idea or theory that is not proven but that leads to further study; a proposition that is to be tested by an experiment using the scientific method

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