An international team of scientists from the World Health Organization (WHO) traveled to Wuhan, China, after several months of negotiations, attempts to cross the border, and international pressure. The experts wanted to investigate and find out which animal was the source of the coronavirus.
The first conclusions of the trip - it was not possible to identify the original source of the virus. However, new details have emerged. It turns out that the virus circulated in China even before December 2019 and already counted 13 different strains. The trip itself raised more questions than it could explain, but it also refuted several theories.
Scientists worked under the close scrutiny of the Chinese side, and sometimes they had to "gnaw" the data in a raised tone. China refused to provide some data, WHO officials were not allowed to communicate with those who had been ill or witnesses. WHO has also promised to publish the full travel report early next week.
Lab Leakage - "Extremely Unlikely"
How did the theory come about? Wuhan is the world's center for coronavirus research, and it became the first city to experience an outbreak of Covid-19. This raised suspicions that the two facts are related. And cases of virus leaks have already happened in other laboratories.
The process of researching coronaviruses is as follows: scientists catch bats living in the Yunnan cave, take stool samples from them and then send them to a laboratory in Wuhan, 1.6 thousand km from the field research site.
The project is trying to predict and prevent coronavirus outbreaks. It is led by Professor Shi Zhengli, known as Batwoman. Scientists have discovered hundreds of new coronaviruses common in bats.
The Chinese government, the leadership of the Wuhan Institute of Virology and Professor Shi deny the version of the leak.
What did the experts learn?
Scientists themselves visited the very suspected laboratory, as well as the Institute of Virology in Wuhan. First, they ruled out the possibility that the virus was of artificial origin. As for the possibility of a leak, the laboratory meets all safety rules, and there is also no evidence or traces of SARS-CoV-2.
Although the incident in the laboratory was among the scientists' hypotheses, they concluded that such a scenario is "highly unlikely" and does not require further investigation.
The official version of China
According to the official version, the virus was first detected in December 2019 in Wuhan. The outbreak was believed to have started in a local market selling bats carrying coronaviruses.
Also, the Chinese authorities have recently spread information that the virus existed in other countries even before it was detected in the PRC.
What have the experts learned?
Thus, preliminary results of WHO studies indicate that the coronavirus could appear in Wuhan two months earlier, reports The Wall Street Journal.
Scientists did not rule out that more than 90 people in central China were hospitalized with symptoms of Covid-19 in the two months before December 8, 2019. The WHO offered to test blood samples from a wider population to confirm this theory, but authorities did not give permission. Instead, the authorities gave them a squeeze of information already processed by Chinese scientists.
Chinese experts tested some of the 90 patients for antibodies, but found no antibodies.
The scientists said China is denying access to the data for the investigation. They were unable to study the personal data of the patients, as it is confidential information. In addition, many of the recovered refused to meet with representatives of the organization.
According to expert on zoonotic infections and food safety Peter Ben Embarek, experts have reason to believe that at the time of the outbreak, there were at least a thousand infected in Wuhan, CNN reports. These people did not have a severe illness. Thus, the first version of China about the appearance of the virus only in December is refuted.
Another discovery is the presence of at least 13 coronavirus mutations in December 2019. Experts have studied the samples of Covid-19 provided by China, they were able to study individual elements of the genetic material of the virus cells.
Some of their mutations started spreading from local markets, and some are not associated with them.
Data on early mutations, together with a broader study of 2019 patient sample samples in China, could help determine the timing and geography of infection.
Was the virus transmitted from animal to human through an intermediate host?
Scientists have come to the conclusion that the virus entered humans through an intermediate host, that is, through animals. It is this basic theory that scientists will study in the near future, said a member of the international expert group Peter Dashak in an interview with The New York Times.
What kind of animals became carriers and where exactly this happened is still unclear. The main suspects are still pangolins and bats.
According to Dashak, the data suggests that the coronavirus most likely first appeared in animals in China or Southeast Asia.
Dashak mentioned that he has visited farms with domesticated wild animals in China on several occasions. There are several species of wild animals at once, such as sun badgers, civet dogs and raccoon dogs. They could have contracted the coronavirus from bats. Subsequently, the virus could have passed on to farm workers or entered the Wuhan market with live or slaughtered farm animals.
The exact chain of transmission of the virus will still be studied.
Also, outbreaks could have occurred in other markets in other regions, they remained unreported.
Could the virus be transmitted through frozen foods?
Experts also want to further investigate the theory of the spread of the virus through the surfaces of frozen foods through their sale and transport.
The market in Wuhan dealt mainly with frozen animal products and seafood. And initially, the virus could enter the market through such products. This theory was given the status of "very likely".
The WHO team is about to visit China for the second time for further research. Authorities often deny access to data that would help track the chain of the pandemic, and it takes "very diplomatic steps" to get more information.
“Any such issue will be delicate in China, it will take persuasion, diplomacy and energy. Finding the source of this virus in China is not a high priority for the Chinese government. The emergence of the virus is a political issue. This is one of the problems, and it is clear and obvious to everyone who is on watched it, "says Peter Dashak.
Another member of the expedition, Danish immunologist Thea Colsen Fischer, in an interview with the New York Times called the investigation "highly geopolitical."
“Everyone knows how much pressure is being put on China to cooperate with this investigation, and how many charges may arise in connection with this,” she said.