A joint World Health Organization (WHO)-China study on the origins of COVID-19 says that transmission of the virus from bats to humans through another animal is the most likely scenario and that a lab leak is “extremely unlikely,” according to a draft copy obtained by The Associated Press.
The report, which is expected to be made public Tuesday, is being closely watched since discovering the origins of the virus could help scientists prevent future pandemics. But repeated delays in the report’s release have raised questions about whether the Chinese side was trying to skew its conclusions.
“We’ve got real concerns about the methodology and the process that went into that report, including the fact that the government in Beijing apparently helped to write it,” U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a recent CNN interview.
China rejected that criticism Monday.
“The U.S. has been speaking out on the report. By doing this, isn’t the U.S. trying to exert political pressure on the members of the WHO expert group?” asked Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian.
The report is based largely on a visit by a WHO team of international experts to Wuhan, the Chinese city where COVID-19 was first detected. The mission was never meant to identify the exact natural source of the virus, an endeavor that typical takes years.
In the draft obtained by the AP, the researchers listed four scenarios in order of likelihood for the emergence of the new coronavirus. Topping the list was transmission from bats through another animal, which they said was likely to very likely. They evaluated direct spread from bats to humans as likely, and said that spread to humans from the packaging of “cold-chain” food products was possible but not likely.
That last possibility was previously dismissed by the WHO and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention but researchers on this mission have taken it up again, further raising questions about the politicization of the study since China has long pushed the theory.
Bats are known to carry coronaviruses and, in fact, the closest relative of the virus that causes COVID-19 has been found in bats. However, the report says that “the evolutionary distance between these bat viruses and (COVID-19) is estimated to be several decades, suggesting a missing link.”
WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus acknowledged that he had received the report over the weekend and said it would be formally presented Tuesday.
“We will read the report and discuss, digest its content and next steps with member states,” Tedros told a news conference in Geneva. “But as I have said, all hypotheses are on the table and warrant complete and further studies from what I have seen so far.”
The draft report is inconclusive on whether the outbreak started at a Wuhan seafood market that had one of the earliest clusters of cases in December 2019.
The market was an early suspect because some stalls sold a range of unusual animals — and some wondered if they had brought the new virus to Wuhan. As the search for the origins of the virus has become highly politicized, Beijing has pushed for scientists to explore this theory more because it could mean the virus originated outside of China.
Keaten reported from Geneva. Associated Press writers Maria Cheng in London, Victoria Milko in Jakarta, Indonesia, and Frank Jordans in Berlin contributed. The AP Health and Science Department receives support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Department of Science Education. The AP is solely responsible for all content.