WHO makes case for probe into early cases

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The World Health Organization highlighted the importance to investigate early COVID-19 cases in different countries in a report released on Tuesday.
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The World Health Organization highlighted the importance to investigate early COVID-19 cases in different countries in a report released on Tuesday.

Experts from the WHO and China “reviewed data from published studies from different countries suggesting early circulation” of COVID-19, the report said.

The findings showed that “some of the suspected positive samples were detected even earlier than the first case in Wuhan, suggesting the possibility of missed circulation in other countries,” the report said, adding that “nonetheless, it is important to investigate these potential early events.”

The report did not draw any firm conclusions, but did rank a range of hypotheses according to how likely experts thought they were.

It judged a lab-leak hypothesis “extremely unlikely,” saying the virus behind COVID-19 had most probably jumped from bats to humans via an intermediary animal.

The report stated the laboratories in Wuhan that worked on the virus had good safety records and the Wuhan lab “reported no disruptions or incidents caused by the move” and was not working on bat coronaviruses before the pandemic.

The WHO-backed team also investigated the scenario that virus could have spread via frozen foods, noting many of the goods sold at the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market were frozen and many prior virus outbreaks have been linked to the foodstuffs.

The report gives some credence to claims that the coronavirus has been reintroduced to China via frozen-food imports in the year since the outbreak began in Wuhan, stating the virus can “persist in conditions found in frozen food, packaging and cold-chain products.”

The report concludes it is “possible” frozen food led to the outbreak in Wuhan in late 2019, with the Huanan market as one potential route.

The WHO-led team visited the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market in February, analyzing the data on early cases to consider whether there was a link to the market. Based on available data, the team failed to reach a firm conclusion about the role of the market. It found only 28 percent of confirmed early cases had exposure only to the Huanan market, while a further 4.8 percent had exposure to the market as well as other markets.

WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus welcomed the report, saying it “advances our understanding in important ways.”

China said that the joint research will play a positive role in promoting global cooperation in COVID-19 origin tracing, a foreign ministry spokesperson said. The Chinese side offered necessary facilitation for the team’s work, fully demonstrating its openness, transparency and responsible attitude.

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