Australian W.H.O. Investigator: Coronavirus Most Likely Originated in China

Residents visit a night market in Baocheng Road on June 3, 2020 in Wuhan, Hubei Province,
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Professor Dominic Dwyer, an Australian microbiologist and infectious disease expert who traveled with the World Health Organization (W.H.O.) team investigating the origins of the coronavirus in Wuhan, China, said on Wednesday there is little evidence the Chinese coronavirus originated anywhere but China.

Chinese scientists working with the W.H.O. team are pushing theories the disease might have originated somewhere else and traveled to China by way of imported food.

Dwyer told Australia’s 9News there is “very limited” evidence to suggest the coronavirus came from anywhere but China.

“There is some evidence but it’s not really very good,” he elaborated. “I think it’s most likely that it came from a bat. We know that other viruses that are closely related to (COVID-19) are present in bats.”

Dwyer suggested the virus might have originated in bats and passed to humans through an intermediate species, such as the pangolin. This recalls some of the earliest theories about the pandemic, which held that unusual animals sold for meat in the unsanitary open-air “wet markets” of Wuhan could have infected the first human victims.

“I think the explosion in the Wuhan market was really an amplifying event,” the Australian doctor said.

Chinese officials have occasionally discussed regulating the wet markets more strictly but adamantly refuse to shut them down. Reuters found hundreds of shoppers thronging the Wuhan markets in December 2020, scoffing at the notion they had anything to fear.

Dwyer said his Chinese hosts in Wuhan were “very hospitable” and worked “very well” with the W.H.O. team, although he expressed some bemusement with the politics surrounding the investigation.

“It’s one thing discussing the science and all of us are used to doing that, it’s another thing, talking about the politics around this and see responses change around the politics,” he said.

Dwyer said there is evidence that the coronavirus began circulating in Wuhan as early as mid-November, but held the Chinese government blameless for failing to realize they had a budding pandemic on their hands.

“We also know the Chinese were reporting the people who went to hospital were really sick, but we now know – and to be fair they didn’t know at the time. But we now know there’s a lot of ordinary transmission going on between otherwise healthy people, so there must’ve been many, many more cases in December than were identified,” he said.

The official position of the W.H.O. team is that the coronavirus “most likely” originated in animals before spreading to humans, with a distinct early surge of cases surrounding the Huanan Seafood Market in December 2019. The W.H.O. investigators deemed the hypothesis that the virus escaped from a laboratory in Wuhan to be “extremely unlikely.” 

Chinese scientists strongly dispute the laboratory hypothesis and insist the virus spread to humans from animals, but they have not yet been able to identify a plausible animal host for the transmission. The latest speculation has focused more on cats or minks than traditional suspects like the pangolin.


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