A senior World Health Organization (W.H.O.) expert on Monday declared that the novel coronavirus did not necessarily jump from animals into humans in Wuhan, China, where health officials detected the first clusters of the highly contagious and lethal disease.
The remarks by Dr. Michael Ryan, the executive director of the Health Emergencies Program at the China-influenced United Nations agency, came in response to a reporter asking about a two-person W.H.O. team who recently traveled to China to probe the origins of the Chinese coronavirus.
On Monday, Ryan briefed reporters alongside W.H.O. Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.
Tedros announced that the duo who visited China had “concluded their mission to lay the groundwork” for a more extensive “international team” to identify the virus’s origins.
“The team is actually not back yet, and we obviously haven’t had the chance to debrief them,” Dr. Ryan explained.
Asked about the mission, Ryan said in responding:
There are gaps in the epidemiological landscape and what is required is going to be a much more extensive retrospective epidemiological study to look at those first cases and clusters in Wuhan and to fully understand the links between those cases so that we can then determine at what point in Wuhan or elsewhere was the animal-human species barrier breached.
“Again, one must remember that there was a specific surveillance system in place in Wuhan for picking up clusters of atypical pneumonia,” he also said.
“The fact that that fire alarm was triggered doesn’t necessarily mean that is where the disease crossed from animals into humans,” Ryan added.
State-run media outlets in China swiftly seized on Ryan’s comments to cast doubt on the true origin of the virus.
According to health officials, the virus may have originated in Wuhan wet markets, where animals known to transmit coronaviruses are crammed together in putrid conditions and sold for public consumption.
The Chinese city is also home to the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV), where researchers are known to carry out studies on bat coronaviruses.
In early January, China closed the wet market believed to be the source of the virus and disinfected with bleach, destroying all microbial evidence at the site, according to a dossier prepared by concerned Western governments, including the U.S., that surfaced in May.
Echoing the intelligence report, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in April accused Beijing of destroying Chinese coronavirus samples collected early, making it far more difficult to trace the virus’s origin.
The leaked dossier prepared by Western governments concluded that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) intentionally suppressed or destroyed evidence and covered up news about the outbreak to the “endangerment of other countries.”
U.S. intelligence community officers and other Trump administration officials have questioned if the Chinese coronavirus originated in the Wuhan laboratory rather than through contact with an infected animal. The Trump administration has confirmed it is investigating if a Wuhan lab gave birth to the pandemic.
In 2018, U.S. Embassy officials in China warned about improper safety protocols at Wuhan Institute of Virology, the Washington Post reported in April.
Dr. Ryan credited his “Chinese colleagues” with carrying out “a lot of excellent scientific work” related to the coronavirus, namely studies and surveillance.
Citing the W.H.O. press office on Monday, the Associated Press (AP) indicated that the duo who traveled to China might not have been able to visit Wuhan. The two W.H.O. experts “had discussions by video with virologists and other scientists in Wuhan — including the Wuhan Institute of Virology,” AP noted.
Their mission “was really about discussing” how the next phase of the investigation of the Chinese coronavirus origin by a larger international team would look like, Ryan added during the press briefing.
An “international team” will deploy to Wuhan as part of phase two of the probe, Tedros told reporters, without saying when or providing any additional details.
U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration has withdrawn the United States from the W.H.O., accusing the agency of helping China cover up the extent of the virus during its early stages and mismanaging its global response.
Before Trump’s move, the U.S. was the largest source of funding for the U.N. entity.