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WHO explains: How, where did Covid first emerge?

Dubai - Key takeaways from WHO report on the origins of Covid-19 virus.

Image: Alamy.com/ae
Image: Alamy.com/ae

Anjana Sankar

Published: Tue 30 Mar 2021, 4:21 PM

The long-awaited World Health Organisation (WHO) report from Wuhan on the origins of Covid-19 is now out.

The 123-page report says that the Covid-19 virus that killed more than two million people globally, probably originated in animals. However, the report, which is more cautious than conclusive, throws open many questions.

The report has recommended a further study into blood samples and records in Chinese hospitals much before December, when the first case was reported. The experts have asked for further testing of farms that supplied wild animals to a market, where early cases were tracked.

Virus could have first emerged in bats

The report said that the virus could have first emerged in bats and then spread to small mammal species like mink or raccoon dogs before it was transmitted to humans. This could have happened either on a farm or in the wild. As per the report, it is less likely that the virus directly transmitted from bats to humans. The virus is genetically distinct even from the most closely related viruses found in bats to date, the team said. Only a few SARS-like viruses that have been isolated from bats in recent years have the ability to infect humans, the report noted.

WHO report rubbishes laboratory origin theory

Former US President Donald Trump’s administration had floated a conspiracy theory that Beijing might have engineered the virus in a secret laboratory and spread it the world. But the WHO report rubbished the claim. It said there is no record whatsoever to suggest that any lab in China or elsewhere had been working to that effect and analyses of the genome have ruled that out.

Is China’s wildlife farms behind the spread?

Peter Daszak, disease ecologist who was part of the WHO investigative team that did two weeks of research in China, said wildlife farms supplying to the Wuhan market could have been the pathway to the spreading of virus from bats to mammals. China’s shutting down of these farms in early 2020, Daszak pointed out, as an evidence supporting the theory.

"China closes that pathway down for a reason. The reason was, back in February 2020, they believed this was the most likely pathway [for the coronavirus to spread to Wuhan]. And when the WHO report comes out ... we believe it's the most likely pathway, too," he was quoted by NPR.

Did the virus originate in Hunan market in Wuhan?

The report is cautious in jumping to that conclusion. The teams that visited the Hunan market in February has found that only 28 per cent of the confirmed early cases had exposure to the Hunan market. Experts also note that many early cases may have been missed as those infected did not seek medical assistance.

What are main WHO recommendations?

The Chinese authorities had identified 92 early cases out of more than 76,000 respiratory patients in the country between October and November 2019. The report has asked for a more detailed study into blood bank samples and hospital records that go back to September, 2019. The report has also recommended more testing of possible animal sources, including pangolins, in China as well as Southeast Asia and other countries where bats that carry these viruses are found.

How did China respond to the WHO report?

Zhao Lijian, a Chinese foreign ministry spokesman, passed the buck to the US. “When will the WHO experts be invited to the United States for a visit on origin-tracing?” Zhao asked at a news briefing on Monday.

He wanted to when the world would get access to a U.S. military laboratory, which the Chinese authorities said the virus might have originated. He said Chinese authorities had provided data of particular concern to the WHO-led team “item by item.”

Chinese theory on the origin of virus

It is widely believed that the origin of the Corvis-19 virus is from Wuhan in China. But Beijing has consistently refused to take the blame for starting a global pandemic. It floated the theory that the virus may have circulated in other countries or originated in the US. Beijing has also blamed frozen food imported from US and Europe as causing outbreaks – a theory fiercely played down by other countries and even health experts. But China had gone as far as introducing testing and disinfection of foreign food packets before they were consumed by the people. China even floated a conspiracy theory that the U.S. military was involved in spreading the virus.

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