WHO, int’l experts expose anti-China slander on Covid-19

By Countercurrents Collective
The National Health Commission of China on March 15 released the full transcript of a joint China-WHO press conference on the WHO-convened Global Study of Origins of SARS-CoV-2, which was held on February 9.
A full transcript of a joint China-WHO press conference released to counter the slander is given at the end of this report. See Appendix.
It was meant to counter misrepresentations by the Big Media in the West, and in India which only relayed half-truths spread by the former. The Indian media carried on a tirade against China on the origins of the virus, accusing China of various things including not allowing full access to the team. The tirade was conducted also in the context of an India- China agreement on de-escalation and disengagement of troops along LAC, and there was some thaw in Indo-Pak relations. It was meant to vitiate this atmosphere and undermine efforts for peace and friendship. Thus it is necessary to understand what is going on.
Nearly a year after first describing COVID-19 as a pandemic, the World Health Organization complained March 8 Monday that some failed to listen to its earlier urgent warnings. The WHO sounded its highest available level of alarm on January 30, 2020, by declaring a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC).
But it was not until it used the word “pandemic” — which does not feature in the official international health alert system — on 11 March that many countries jumped into action.
India was among them, busy in elections, a parliament session, and blaming a community and a conspiracy!
WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said some countries were slow to wake up to the risks of the novel coronavirus after the PHEIC declaration, when, outside China, there were fewer than 100 cases of COVID-19 and no deaths.
“One of the things we still need to understand is why some countries acted on those warnings, while others were slower to react,” he told a press conference.
Don’t squander progress
Nearly 2.67 million people are known to have been killed by COVID-19 since the outbreak emerged in China in December 2019, while more than 121 million cases have been registered, according to a tally from official sources.
Tedros said the WHO’s focus was on supporting countries to end the pandemic, including with vaccines being rolled out around the world.
“We have come so far, we have suffered so much, and we have lost so many. We cannot — we must not — squander the progress we have made,” he stressed.
During January 14 and February 10, a joint team of WHO conducted a 28-day investigation in Wuhan, China. The joint team is comprised of 17 Chinese experts and 17 international experts from 10 other countries.
The team visited nine institutes in Wuhan city, including the Jinyintan Hospital, the Huanan seafood market and the Wuhan Institute of Virology. They talked with medical workers, lab personnel, researchers, market managers, vendors, social community workers, recovered patients and families of medical workers.
The composition of the team given below shows China can not influence its report.
Members of the international team:
• Prof. Dr. Thea Fisher, MD, DMSc(PhD) (Nordsjællands Hospital, Denmark)
• Prof. John Watson (Public Health England, United Kingdom)
• Prof. Dr. Marion Koopmans, DVM PhD (Erasmus MC, Netherlands)
• Prof. Dr. Dominic Dwyer, MD (Westmead Hospital, Australia)
• Vladimir Dedkov, Ph.D (Institute Pasteur, Russia)
• Dr. Hung Nguyen-Viet, PhD (International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI), Vietnam)
• PD. Dr. med vet. Fabian Leendertz (Robert Koch-Institute, Germany)
• Dr. Peter Daszak, PhD (EcoHealth Alliance, USA)
• Dr. Farag El Moubasher, PhD (Ministry of Public Health, Qatar)
• Prof. Dr. Ken Maeda, PhD, DVM (National Institute of Infectious Diseases, Japan)
The international team also includes five WHO experts led by Dr Peter Ben Embarek; two Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) representatives, and two World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) representatives.
In the light of US allegations that WHO was hand in glove with China, the following report of Feb 16, 2021, is important.
The World Health Organization (WHO) said on Feb 15 that the international expert team on the COVID-19 origin-tracing mission in Wuhan was “independent” and had no affiliation.
“So many times I hear that this is a WHO study or investigation. It’s not,” WHO Director-General, Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told a virtual press conference from Geneva, stressing that it’s an independent study which is composed of independent individuals from ten institutions.
At Monday’s press conference, Dr. Peter Ben Embarek, head of the international expert team in Wuhan, said that their report would be a “consensus document.”
“The international teams and the Chinese counterparts have already agreed on the summary reports,” he said.
The expert team, composed of 17 international scientists and 17 Chinese counterparts, are working together to publish an interim joint report, in which they would “make recommendations for future studies,” said Embarek.
The WHO-China joint mission of 25 national and international experts was held from 16-24 February 2020. It was led by Dr Bruce Aylward of WHO and Dr Wannian Liang of the People’s Republic of China. Dr Aylward is currently a WHO Senior Advisor.
Global experts’ team “conclusively ruled out” the Wuhan Lab linkage
The team deployed to trace the source of SARS-CoV-2 in China was unable to do so. But it conclusively ruled out the possibility that the virus could have escaped from a research lab in Wuhan in Hubei province, downtoearth.org.in had reported.
“No lab was working on this or a similar virus,” Peter Ben Embarek from the World Health Organization (WHO), who was part of the team, said at a press meeting in China on February 9, 2021.
“The labs maintain high standards and the lab leak hypothesis is very unlikely,” Liang Wannian, head of the expert panel on novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) response at China’s National Health Commission, added.
The WHO-convened Global Study of Origins of SARS-CoV-2 research team began the study on January 14 to understand the events at the beginning of the epidemic — how it happened and how the disease transferred to humans. While these are the results from China, similar studies would be carried out in other parts of the world too.
The team found no conclusive evidence to indicate that there were cases of the disease in the country before December 2019 in Wuhan or in other parts of the country. This puts to rest the theory that China knew about the outbreak much in advance and suppressed the facts.
The team tried to find if the spread of the disease could be linked to the direct zoonotic spillover into the human population or enter through an intermediary host that is closer to humans.
Other than this, they also looked at the role of frozen food acting as the surface for transmission and the possibility of a laboratory-related incidence that could have released the virus in the environment.
The researchers were unable to identify the wild reservoir of the virus. While bats are the natural reservoirs of the virus, these were not present in Wuhan and the team suggests that an intermediate host theory is more plausible.
The Huanan Sea Food Market in Wuhan, that was in the spotlight at the beginning, dealt with domesticated wildlife that could have been the source. Frozen food from different parts of China and even from outside the country was sold in the market. The joint team has identified the traders and vendors and farms from where the products were coming from and will work further in this direction.
Wannian pointed out that these were the first findings of the major global study and the results from China will set the ground for work in other parts of the world.
While the disease spread to people who visited the market, it was also evident in people who had not come to the market. It could have been introduced through an infected person who could be one of the traders or buyers. It could be through products such as farmed wildlife animals. All this is providing clues for the direction of future studies.
Marion Koopmans, head of the Erasmus MC Department of Viroscience in the Netherlands, who was part of the team said figuring out the exact role of each of these in the spread of the disease was complex and only broad categories could be established. With new information, new understanding would emerge, she added.
The findings would help researchers prioritise future research in identifying the source of the disease. While the WHO-convened team suggested that researchers continue to look at the first three sources, they said the lab incidence hypothesis was extremely unlikely and there was no need to carry out future studies in this direction.
No evidence for the patient zero emerged from the studies. The pandemic first emerged in China’s Wuhan by the end of 2019. As of February 9, 2021, 106,008,943 confirmed cases of COVID-19, including 2,316,389 deaths have been reported globally.
Lab leak from the Wuhan is “the least likely on the list of our hypotheses“: AFP
The above report was reiterated in March, by a Western agency.
The much-anticipated report from the international mission to Wuhan to investigate COVID-19‘s origins is set to be published this week, reported Agence France-Presse, March 15, 2021. Even as an anti-china spin is being attempted, and pressures are mounting on WHO, it said:
The idea of a lab leak from the Wuhan Institute of Virology – a hypothesis promoted by former US President Donald Trump’s administration – is “the least likely on the list of our hypotheses”, said Dutch virologist Marion Koopmans, also a member of the WHO team.
Trump had accused the WHO of being China’s puppet. Though his successor Joe Biden has changed the tone towards the UN health agency since becoming US president in January, Washington has continued to voice serious concerns about the WHO investigation and has pushed Beijing to provide more information. The pressure is emanating not just from the United States.
Walter Stevens, the European Union’s ambassador to the UN in Geneva, recently called for the report to be “completely transparent” and answer the questions “that we all have”.
The mission insists it got access to all the sites and people it wanted to, AFP added.
WHO experts slam NYT for twisting, misquoting their words on virus origins probe
Can the US provide all the raw data of its COVID-19 cases? Can it conduct full-scale collaboration with the WHO, and can it invite WHO experts to probe virus origins in the country?
These were questions asked by China’s FM spokesperson Hua Chunying in response to recent suspicions voiced by Western politicians and media, including the New York Times, over WHO experts’ work in China.
According to Liang Wannian, leader of the WHO-China joint study team, in July 2020, China had invited WHO experts to come to China to evaluate the country’s role in the global study on the origins of the novel coronavirus.
Since then, China and the WHO have built a joint study team based on the preliminary findings, making China the first country to conduct such a study with the WHO, mentioned Liang.
In the context of misrepresentations, China’s media, on Feb 14, 2021, published a report quoting experts of the global team exposing the NYT. The report is given below:
WHO experts who recently visited Wuhan slammed the New York Times for twisting their words and casting shadows over the efforts to uncover the origins of the virus after the newspaper accused China of refusing to hand over sensitive data to WHO experts.
The report by New York Times titled “On WHO Trip, China Refused to Hand Over Important Data” accuses China of failing to share important data that may help in identifying the origins of the virus and prevent future outbreaks.
After the report was published, two WHO experts slammed the New York Times for misquoting them in the report to fit its own narrative, with the report casting a shadow over the scientific work of seeking for virus origin.
Peter Daszak, British zoologist, (with EcoHealth Alliance, USA) and part of the WHO expert team, said on his personal Twitter that it’s shameful for New York Times to engage in selectively misquoting WHO experts to fit its own narrative.
“Hear! Hear! It’s disappointing to spend time w/ journalists explaining key findings of our exhausting month-long work in China, to see our colleagues selectively misquoted to fit a narrative that was prescribed before the work began. Shame on you @nytimes!” Daszak posted on Twitter.
In sharp contrast to the NYT report, that has accused China of refusing to hand over important data, Daszak wrote on his Twitter that “We DID get access to critical new data throughout. We DID increase our understanding of likely spillover pathways.”
Daszak said his experience is nothing like the New York Times depicted and said as the head of the animal and environment working group, he found trust and openness when working with his China
Thea Kølsen Fischer, a Danish epidemiologist on the team echoed Daszak, who was quoted by the NYT in the report, wrote on Twitter that “This was NOT my experience either on the Epi-side. We DID build up a good relationship in the Chinese/Int Epi-team! Allowing for heated arguments reflects a deep level of engagement in the room.”
Fischer, (of Nordsjællands Hospital, Denmark) continued that “Our quotes are intendedly twisted, casting shadows over important scientific work.”
“Throughout the WHO expert team’s trip in Wuhan, Western media’s goal had been to push their theories that China is guilty of causing the COVID-19 pandemic and hiding information,” Peking University professor Zhang Yiwu told the Global Times on Sunday.
As the results WHO experts released at the press conference were opposite to what the Western media were looking forward to, some Western media become so desperate that they made such false report, twisting experts’ words, to continue hyping their conspiracy theories about China, Zhang noted.
Countries that accused China of trying to hide information or prevent WHO experts from investigating would not even allow a WHO expert team to enter their countries to investigate, Zhang said, slamming their double standards.
On Twitter, Fischer also said it’s “important to stay true to facts if building up trust, calling to stop this negative spin about “no access to raw data.”
In the EU, the access of person-identifiable data is either not possible if, without official permission under General Data Protection Regulations (EU GDPR), Fischer said.
Wang Guangfa, a respiratory expert at Peking University First Hospital, told the Global Times on Feb 14 Sunday that “Truth will tell everything.”
“Virus traceability investigation is a scientific issue. It should not become a tool for political attacks and brings no good for the identification of the virus origins,” Wang stressed.
Since Wuhan is not a city where the environment is close to bat environment, therefore we tried other animals. Other animals could also contribute to the spread of the virus, said Peter Ben Embarek, a Swiss food safety scientist leading the WHO team.
After the WHO stated that all hypotheses relating to the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic remained open following the visit to Wuhan, Chinese experts and netizens called on the WHO to launch a broader probe mission on the origins of the virus in other potential source countries.
Chinese observers said they are not surprised by the New York Times’ baseless report given those in the Western media have insisted on politicizing the virus origins investigation.
Report of the WHO-China Joint Mission on Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19)
The WHO itself posted a report on its official website, 28 February 2020. Planning on the next steps, rather than blaming China was its thrust. It said:
Overview: The overall goal of the Joint Mission was to rapidly inform national (China) and international planning on the next steps in the response to the ongoing outbreak of the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) and on the next steps in readiness and preparedness for geographic areas not yet affected.
The findings in this report are based on the Joint Mission’s review of national and local governmental reports, discussions on control and prevention measures with national and local experts and response teams, and observations made and insights gained during site visits. The figures have been produced using information and data collected during site visits and with the agreement of the relevant groups. References are available for any information in this report that has already been published in journals.
The WHO-China joint mission of 25 national and international experts was held from 16-24 February 2020. It was led by Dr Bruce Aylward of WHO and Dr Wannian Liang of the People’s Republic of China. Dr Aylward is currently a WHO Senior Advisor.
“Earlier cases were reported by US media, and not fabricated by China”
Speaking at a Feb 18 conference, China FM spokesperson Hua Chunying earlier said that she noticed relevant reports from Western media that cast doubts on the WHO experts’ investigations into the coronavirus origins in China, citing China’s refusal to share raw data of the coronavirus origin with them as an example.
Those reports are totally inconsistent with WHO experts’ experiences in China, said Hua, noting that the experts are disappointed about the reports and ashamed about those media outlets.
Her comments came after Western media, including Sky News Australia, claimed that three of the WHO experts had links to Chinese institutions, and UK Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab criticized the level of access given to the WHO experts.
Hua pointed out that the “independence” those Western politicians always talk about does not equate to listening to the West and assuming guilt on China.
The independent report will only be produced on the basis of respecting science and facts.
Experts from China and other countries overcame COVID-19 barriers and sat together, held friendly and in-depth communication with honest and scientific attitudes, said Hua, noting that WHO experts gave high-level credit to China’s cooperation, and were granted access to wherever they wanted to go and met whoever they wanted.
This is what Hua called a scientific and professional attitude, while the interference of certain politicians (in the West) is another example of politics disturbing science.
Hua cited several international reports of COVID-19 cases being found in many places in late 2019, pointing out that the US media has begun to expose Fort Detrick, where unknown respiratory diseases were detected in nearby places.
The spokesperson pointed out that these cases were reported by US media, and not fabricated by China.
“We are still curious about whether the US can provide all raw data (of its COVID-19 cases). Can the US conduct full-scale cooperation with the WHO and can the US invite WHO experts to trace virus origins in the country and come out with independent results?” Hua asked.
Hua said that China has had deep, professional and scientific cooperation with the WHO experts, and hopes other countries can do the same, in order to fulfil their obligations in battling the pandemic.
WHO mission suggests “wider global search for COVID-19 origins, and deeper research” on cold chain role in virus transmission
Contrary to misleading reports blaming China, the WHO mission suggested wider and deeper research, a report mentioned on Mar 15, 2021.
Experts on tracing the novel coronavirus origins should continue to search for possible early cases of the outbreak more widely around the world and further understand the role of cold chain logistics and frozen products played in virus transmission, the Chinese leader of the WHO mission revealed March 14 Sunday.
Liang Wannian, leader of the WHO China joint study team, made the remarks at a briefing on March 12 Friday. More than 40 envoys and diplomats from 29 European countries and the EU attended the briefing, the Chinese Foreign Ministry said in a statement on Sunday.
The scientific assessment of the WHO mission concluded that the novel coronavirus is very likely to be transmitted from human to human via an intermediate host, likely to be transmitted directly or through cold-chain food to human, and very unlikely to be transmitted from lab to human, Liang said.
Four recommendations for the next steps of the research
The joint expert group made four recommendations for the next steps of the research.
First, it is necessary to expand the global unified database to include molecular and gene sequence, clinical, epidemiological and animal surveillance, and environmental monitoring data.
Second, continue to look for possible early cases of the outbreak more widely around the world.
Third, scientists from around the world should look for potential hosts of the virus in different countries, not only bats.
Fourth, further, understand the role of cold chain logistics and frozen food in the process of virus transmission.
Chinese and WHO experts also held discussions and gradually agreed on the virus origin issue. The two sides established a friendly working relationship through sincere communication.
Thanks to the joint efforts, the research found that bats and pangolins have a coronavirus whose gene sequences is highly similar to novel coronavirus. However, this is not enough to prove that they are the reservoir of the original novel coronavirus. Other species may also be a potential natural host for the virus, Liang said.
The earliest report of a case in Wuhan was on December 8, 2019, and Liang added that “the Huanan seafood market may be an outbreak point of the virus, acting as an amplifier for the COVID-19 outbreak.”
Environmental samples taken after the closure of the Huanan seafood market showed widespread contamination by a novel coronavirus in the environment, especially in market stalls with aquatic products, suggesting the possibility of the introduction of the virus through infected persons, contaminated cold chain products, animals and animal products in the market, Liang said.
The discovery of the viral sequence of coronavirus suggests the virus originated from the zoonotic transmission, but the host is yet to be identified. Sequence diversity appeared in the early Wuhan outbreak, suggesting that there are transmission chains beyond the Huanan seafood market, according to a report jointly published by experts from China and World Health Organization (WHO) on Feb 9 Tuesday.
There is no indication of the transmission of the novel coronavirus before December 2019 in Wuhan, Liang Wannian, a member of the WHO-China joint study team said at a press conference, noting that China and WHO joint investigation laid the groundwork for coronavirus origins tracing elsewhere, and global tracing will not be limited to any location.
Huanan seafood market may not have been the first place for the COVID19 outbreak, as the first case that was registered on December 8, 2019, was not linked to the Huanan seafood market, Liang said.
COVID-19 virus survives a long time at low temperatures and can be carried long distances; there are several stores at Huanan seafood market selling cold-chain products, but it’s unknown how the first case linking the market to stores sold these products, the official said.
Identifications of the viral sequence showed bats and pangolin are not sufficiently similar to serve as the direct progenitor of the coronavirus. Bats and pangolin sample in Wuhan failed to identify evidence of coronavirus and other samples from Chinese wild animals also failed to find related evidence, Liang said.
Since Wuhan is not a city where the environment is close to bat environment, therefore we tried other animals. Other animals could also contribute to the spread of the virus, said Peter Ben Embarek, a Swiss food safety scientist leading the WHO team, at the press conference.
“Too many countries were slow to wake up” to the risks of COVID-19: WHO chief Tedros Ghebreyesus
WHO emergencies director Michael Ryan said too many countries thought the problem would simply pass them by, and didn’t jolt into action, Agence France-Presse reported March 09, 2021.
“We have to ask ourselves, yes, maybe we need to shout louder — but maybe some people need hearing aids.”
Thus he was setting at rest the blame game against China, which is sought to be isolated by the West and India.
“We continued to warn that the world had a narrow window of opportunity to prepare for and prevent a potential pandemic,” he insisted, adding that the description was finally deployed on 11 March 11 after the number of affected countries and cases soared. “But we must be clear that that was not the moment at which we sounded the highest level of alarm.”
Ryan said people living in a valley when a dam bursts know their level of risk and take action while those further up the hillside do not feel the urgency until the waters rise.
“Many people did hear, many countries did hear and took action,” he told the briefing.
However, he added: “I fear too many countries thought they were on a mountain top watching the waters rise to consume and overwhelm others. But what everyone didn’t realise was that the waters rose to consume them.”
Maria Van Kerkhove, the WHO’s technical lead on COVID-19, said the organisation had done all it could to work with governments after the virus was detected in the Chinese city of Wuhan.
“We were doing our best to inform every day on the situation,” she said, on what was known about the virus and its dangers in the weeks before terming it a pandemic.
“We followed that up with a full preparedness and response plan that was published four days after the alarm,” she said.
Full text: China-WHO press release of the global study on COVID-19 origins
The National Health Commission of China on March 15 Monday released the full transcript of a joint China-WHO press conference on the WHO-convened Global Study of Origins of SARS-CoV-2, which was held on February 9.
Below is the full text:
Ladies and gentlemen, dear friends, good afternoon. Welcome to the joint China-WHO press conference of WHO-convened Global Study of Origins of SARS-CoV-2: China part. This is Mi Feng, the spokesperson of China National Health Commission.
Since COVID-19 became a global pandemic, WHO has been actively promoting international cooperation in terms of the COVID-19 response. China has always been showing firm support to WHO in terms of unleashing the role of WHO in the leadership of the global COVID-19 response.
With the consensus based on negotiation between two sides, China and WHO have conducted joint research of the SARS-CoV-2 global origin tracing: China part. Since the arrival of international expert teams in Wuhan on January 14th, 2021, the joint expert team has been working as three groups, respectively the group of epidemiology, molecular epidemiology and bioinformatics, animal and environment. The experts have been working in the forms of video conferences, on-site interviews and visits and data analysis, as well as discussions. They have conducted systematic and full-fledged research. The joint expert team have already concluded the China part of scientific research related to origin tracing in Wuhan according to the original plan.
During this period, Mr. Ma Xiaowei, the Minister of National Health Commission has been discussing and having extensive communication with Doctor Tedros, the Director General of WHO through telephone. They thoroughly exchanged ideas in terms of the scientific cooperation on the origin tracing.
For today’s conference, we have guest participants on the podium with us from the joint expert team and they are Mr. Peter Ben Embarek, from WHO, food safety expert and also Madam Marion Koopmans, the member of the joint expert team and also the team leader of the molecular epidemiology group. And also professor Liang Wannian from Tsinghua University. He is the team leader of the Chinese side of the joint expert team.
They will present the work that the joint expert team has done and introduce to the public and to the press the updates and highlights of SARS-CoV-2 origin tracing of this joint study and also they are going to answer your questions. Consecutive interpretation will be offered in today’s press conference. So journalists can ask a question either in Chinese or in English.
First I would like to invite professor Liang Wannian, the team leader from the Chinese side to introduce relevant information of this joint study of origin tracing in Wuhan.
Dear friends from the press, good afternoon. On behalf of the team leader from the Chinese side of the China-WHO joint expert team of the SARS-CoV-2 origin tracing research. I would like to give you a brief introduction of the major research process and also the key findings of our endeavour in our recent joint study. With regards to the conclusions and future recommendations, these two parts will be introduced by the team leader from the WHO expert team, Doctor Peter Ben Embarek.
This joint research is the China part of the WHO-convened Global Study of Origins of SARS-CoV-2. The joint research report is based on the relevant research, a crystallization from the Chinese and international scientists in the past. And also the literature review of the previous research and also the analysis will be also included in this joint report.
In May 2020, the 73rd World Health Assembly requested the Director General of the World Health Organization to work with the partners to identify the zoonotic source of the causative virus of COVID-19, and the route of its introduction to the human population, including the possible role of the intermediate hosts. The aim was to prevent reinfection with the virus in animals and humans and prevent the establishment of a new zoonotic reservoir, as well as to reduce further risk of emergence and transmission of zoonotic diseases.
In July 2020, WHO and China began the groundwork for the studies to identify the virus origins. The agreed terms of references or ToR defined the scope of the studies, the main guiding principles and the main expected deliverables. These ToRs define an initial phase of short-term studies to better understand how the virus might have been introduced and started to circulate in Wuhan. The WHO Secretariat and the Chinese Government have jointly set up an international multidisciplinary team to design, support and conduct these studies to contribute to the tracing of the origins of SARS-CoV-2 and the route of its transmission to human beings. The work of the joint international team was set it as the ground for origin tracing work in other parts of the world.
Therefore, the global origin tracing work will not be bound to any location and may evolve geographically as an increasing amount of evidence is generated and science-based hypotheses keep evolving. The overall results and findings will help to improve global preparedness and effective response to SARS-CoV-2, and emerging zoonotic diseases of similar origins.
The joint international team comprises 17 Chinese experts and 17 international experts from ten other countries. And they represent WHO, the World Organization of Animal Health, partners in the global outbreak alert and response network (GOARN). The joint study team carries out research over a 28-day period from January 14th to February 10th 2021 in Wuhan.
The joint expert team through its three working groups reviewed and discussed together the progress made by Chinese experts in phase one studies in the following three areas: epidemiology, animals and environment, molecular epidemiology and bioinformatics.
In addition to the three working groups, the joint international team received detailed presentations on relevant topics to help inform its work and undertook a series of site visits and interviews with key informants.
Now I would like to give you a brief introduction of the key findings of our joint study. The first part of my introduction will be the result of the molecular epidemiology study.
As most of the emerging viruses have their origins in animals, in order to gather more insights into the process of virus spill-over and global spread, it is necessary to understand the diversity and evolution of viruses in an animal reservoir, the interactions between animals, the environment and humans and relevant factors contributing to the efficient human-to-human transmission.
Generally speaking, a virus causing a global pandemic must be highly adaptive to the human environment. Such adaptation may occur unexpectedly or may have evolved through multiple steps with each step driven by natural selection.
Consequently, the research for the origins of SARS-CoV-2 therefore needs to focus on two phases. The first phase involves viral circulation in animal hosts prior to zoonotic transfer. During this evolutionary process, various animal species may serve as reservoir hosts.
Progenitor strain of SARS-CoV-2 may have acquired an enhanced ability to infect humans during their circulation. The discovery of viral sequences with high homology to SARS-CoV-2 suggests that SARS-CoV-2 may have originated from the zoonotic transmission, but the reservoir hosts remain to be identified.
The second phase involves the evolution of SARS-CoV-2 during its spread in human populations, following zoonotic transmission. The likelihood of animal-human spill-over increases with increased frequency, the intensity of animal and human contact. Spill-overs may be occurring repeatedly if the genomic of the virus in the reservoir require further adaptation to efficient onward transmission. Such early spill-overs may go undetected. Once viruses with pandemic potential evolve or spillover, which would enable their spread, resulting in substantial clusters of viruses with an adaptive mutation in different geographical human populations, and hence causing the pandemic of COVID-19.
Evidence from surveys and targeted studies so far have shown that coronavirus most highly related to SARS-CoV-2 are found in bats and pangolins, suggesting these mammals may be the reservoir of the virus that causes COVID-19, due to high similarity in genetic sequences between the sample virus and SARS-CoV-2. However, the viruses identified so far from neither of these two species are sufficiently similar to SARS-CoV-2 to serve as the direct progenitor of the SARS-CoV-2.
Apart from these findings, the high susceptibility of minks and cats to SARS-CoV-2 suggest that there may be additional species of animals, for example, those belonging to Mustelidae or Felidae family as well as other species as the potential reservoir. Comparison of the data from sequence databases with those from surveys of potential reservoir species shows that these possible reservoirs are massively under-sampled and the research in this area is not sufficient.
The joint team reviewed data collected through China National Center for Bioinformation in their integrated database, containing all the available coronavirus sequences and metadata.
For the cases detected in Wuhan, China, by linking the sequence data and epidemiological background, cases with illness onset before December 31st, 2019 were selected for in-depth analysis. The final analysis showed that several of the cases selected with exposure history to the Huanan market had identical virus genomes, suggesting these several cases may be part of a cluster.
However, the sequence data also showed that some diversity of virus was already present in the early phase of the pandemic in Wuhan, suggesting the possibility of unsampled chains of transmission outside the Huanan market cluster. There was no obvious cluster of cases by the epidemiological parameters of raw meat exposure or exposure to fur animals.
Finally, according to the relevant literature review on the data of early circulation of SARS-CoV-2 from published studies, these studies from different countries suggest that SARS-CoV-2 circulation was possibly several weeks earlier than the initial detection of cases. Some of the suspected positive samples were detected even earlier than the first case reported in Wuhan. This indicates the possibility of the missed diagnosis of cases in the early circulation in other regions.
These kinds of missed diagnosis and diseases are highly related to the features of SARS-CoV-2. This is a basic judgment that we can make after the review and analysis of the global data from the global research community.
The second part of my introduction would be the origin tracing work conducted by the epidemiological group. Surveillance of influenza-like illness or ILI, and Severe Acute Respiratory Illness, SARI, with appropriate laboratory confirmation is a standard measure of the impact of influenza and other respiratory viruses in the community to determine the possible impact of morbidity or the causative agent of COVID-19 in the month before the outbreak of COVID-19. Adult sentinel surveillance data from ILI from one hospital in Wuhan and SARI surveillance data from one hospital in Hubei province was reviewed. The full name of SARI is Severe Acute Respiratory Illness. The finding indicated that there was no substantial unrecognized circulation of SARS-CoV-2 in Wuhan during the latter part of 2019.
Origin tracing of stored lab samples. In retrospective testing of stored samples of more than 4,500 research project samples from the second half of 2019 stored at various hospitals in Wuhan, the rest of Hubei province and other provinces, no SARS-CoV-2 was identified.
Analysis of retail pharmacy for the purchase of the antipyretics, cold and cough medications have also been conducted. It did not provide a useful indicator of early community SARS-CoV-2 activity.
And also, we have conducted a review of the surveillance data on all-cause mortality and pneumonia-specific mortality during the period of July to December 2019 from Wuhan city and the rest of the Hubei province. There was no evidence of substantial unexpected fluctuation in mortality that might suggest the occurrence of the transmission of the SARS-CoV-2.
There is no indication of the transmission of the SARS-CoV-2 in the population in the period before December 2019. There is not enough evidence either to determine whether SARS-CoV-2 infection had spread in Wuhan before December 2019.
We have also conducted research among 233 health institutions in Wuhan by searching the records of more than 70,000 cases presenting one of the four conditions or symptoms, including fever, acute respiratory illness, influenza-like illness or unspecified pneumonia in the period of October 1st to December 10th, 2019.
We have also reviewed the testing of the blood obtained from the relevant data bank and also tested the antibodies in the blood samples. All were negative. And it was also followed by the multidisciplinary clinical review and screening of those cases, which determined that none were compatible with SARS-CoV-2 infection.
Retrospective search for potential earlier cases in Wuhan in the two-month period prior to the outbreak detection in December 2019 has not revealed clear evidence of the occurrence of the clinical cases of the SARS-CoV-2 infection. Based on analysis of this and other surveillance data, it is considered unlikely that any substantial transmission of SARS-CoV-2 infection was occurring in Wuhan during those two months.
It is not possible to determine how the SARS-CoV-2 was introduced into the Huanan market or other markets on the basis of the current epidemiological information. There was a possibility of transmission of SARS-CoV-2 infection among the population of Wuhan in December 2019.
Although there was an association with the Huanan Seafood Market in some of the early cases, others were associated with other markets, and other cases have no market’s association at all. It is likely that an outbreak occurred at Huanan Seafood Market. But there is also transmission appearing to have the occurrence elsewhere in Wuhan at the same time. This is our basic judgment. It is not possible to determine how SARS-CoV-2 was introduced into the Huanan Market based on the current information.
The third part of my introduction will be the research of the animal and environment group, the third group of our joint study. Coronaviruses that are genetically related to SARS-CoV-2 have been identified in different animals, including horseshoe bats and pangolins. A sampling of bats in Hubei province, however, has failed to identify evidence of SARS-CoV-2 related viruses and sampling of wildlife in different places in China has so far failed to identify the presence of SARS-CoV-2.
Environmental sampling in the Huanan market from the point of its closing revealed widespread contamination of surfaces with SARS-CoV-2, compatible with possible introduction pathways of the virus through infected people or contaminated cold-chain products, animals and animal products.
According to this research, the testing results of all the animal-related samples from the Huanan market were negative. The cold-chain products have not been tested yet.
SARS-CoV-2 can survive in conditions found in frozen food, packages and cold-chain products. Recent outbreaks in China have been linked to the cold chain. Studies have shown that the virus can survive for a long time, not only at low temperatures but also at refrigerator temperature, indicating that it can be carried long distance on cold chain products. More attention should therefore be paid to further research of the virus in terms of its persistence in the low-temperature environment and also in the damp environment where the humidity is relatively high.
In the Huanan market, a substantial number of stores sold cold-chain products. But it is unclear so far how well the first confirmed cases in Huanan Market can correspond to the stores that sold these products or not. We need further research in this area.
This is my introduction of our major findings of the three groups of the joint study.
Thank you, professor Liang Wannian. Now I would like to invite Doctor Peter to give an introduction.
Thank you, Mr. Mi Feng and Professor Wannian for the introduction and for presenting our findings and also how we have conducted our work.
I’m here this afternoon with Prof. Marion Koopmans from the department of Virology of the College of Medicine of Erasmus University in the Netherlands. And she’s one of the member of the international team that came here a month ago together with colleagues from WHO and OIE. We have the presence of Marion, but it is unfortunate we cannot invite all the members of the joint team to the podium together. We will answer your questions later on together.
I would like to start by thanking you who are here in the room today and those joining us remotely. We have followed many of you in the past few weeks. I would also like to thank those who we have seen every day, following us on cold days for long hours in the rain and bad weather, and we really thank you for following us. It has provided us with constant reminding of the importance of this work and the focus that the world is putting on this work. So thank you for following us.
And the international team would like to recognize the impact of the epidemic on the city of Wuhan from the individuals affected, the communities affected, both from the government’s officials, the citizens, the scientists and the health workers in particular who fought the disease last year here, in particular. Thank you for the engagement of my colleague Professor Wannian, who spent several months here, last year on the front line. Thank you for that.
So you have heard the many findings that we have detected out of our studies and work in the past few weeks and they will be detailed in the report of this mission that would be released later on. I would like to concentrate on some of our key conclusions from these findings. We came here with two goals, two objectives. One was to try to get a better understanding of what happened at the beginning of the event in December 2019. This was the starting point for our work, but also the starting point of the initial outbreak. We’ve focused on trying to understand what happened during that period and try to see if that period had a previous history, could we move the history of the start of the outbreak further down the line in earlier weeks of 2019. And then in parallel, we also embarked on trying to understand how it happens, how did the virus emerge and at some point, jumped and was introduced in the human population. So these were two broad objectives we had and all our studies and work and discussion and visits were trying to get a better understanding of these two pictures.
So in terms of understanding what happened in the early days of December 2019, did we change dramatically the picture we had before-hands? I don’t think so. Did we improve our understanding? Did we add details to that story? Absolutely. You heard some of the key findings from Professor Wannian on this picture.
In trying to understand the picture of December 2019, we embarked on a very detailed, profound search for all the cases that may have been missed, cases early on in 2019. And you heard the detail from Professor Wannian. The conclusion was that we did not find evidence of large outbreaks that could be related to cases of COVID-19 prior to December 19 in Wuhan or elsewhere.
We can also agree that we have found evidence of why the circulation of the virus in December. It was not just only the cluster outbreak in the Huanan Market, but the virus was also circulated outside of the market.
The picture we see is a very classical picture of the start of an emerging outbreak where we start with a few sporadic cases early on in the month of December. And then we start to see small outbreaks where the disease starts to spread in clusters and we have seen it further that was happening in the Huanan market.
And these early clusters are usually and also in this case, the way one detects the first cases, the first sign of these emerging disease and that’s what happened during the month of December 2019.
When mapping all the initial cases of the time throughout December, combining that with location and mapping of some of them in the market, in different parts of the market. And combining that with genetic sequence and genetic information from some of these cases, we could see that a picture becoming more and more clear of the spread within the market and spread outside the market. Initially, there were very few cases and then more and more cases as we moved into January 2020.
And the data and information we got from the very large amount of looking retrospectively at different studies of mortality data, of surveillance disease data, etc., and re-analyzing a large number of the initial genetic sequences identified in the early days of the events and early January. All these data fit perfectly and very well, confirming us in the picture I just described.
Then we embarked on trying to better understand how the virus was introduced in Wuhan, the way it came from.
All the work that has been done on the virus and trying to identify its origin continue to point towards a natural reservoir of this virus and similar viruses in bat population.
But since Wuhan is not a city or an environment close to these bat environments and direct jump from bats to the city of Wuhan is not very likely. Therefore, we have tried to find what other animal species were introduced and moving in and out of the city that could have potentially introduced or contributed to introducing the virus, in particular, in the Huanan market.
The market was dealing primarily with the frozen product, in particular frozen animal product and maybe seafood. But they were also windows selling products from domestic agents – wildlife, farmed, fur, animals and their products.
So the joint team in their studies have identified the vendors who were trading this type of products, identified the suppliers of these vendors, identified the farms from where these products were coming from, and they were coming from different parts of the country and some of the products were also imported products, of course. So there is the potential to continue to follow this lead and a further look at the supply chain and animals that were supplied to the market in the frozen and order process.
There was also a large amount of testing for the coronavirus responsible for COVID-19 in many different animal species throughout the country in a large number of samples of both the domestic animals, farmed animals, wild animals in many different provinces. To these studies, it has not been possible to point to any animal species as a potential reservoir for this disease. They indicate that currently and also back in 2019, it doesn’t look like there was a wide circulation of the virus in any animal species in the country.
The search for the possible route of introduction of the virus to different animal species and the specific reservoir is still under working progress. What we did after looking at our findings and combining the information that we could extract from this finding and we then sit down and say to ourselves – okay, the next step is, let’s look at the future. What are these conclusions telling us and how are we going to move forward in our search for the start of the story? Look at all the possible pathways for the introduction of the virus into the human population. You will have the details in the report, but it’s basically a very simple illustration of different pathways coming from wild animals into different environments where human and animals and products can interact.
Out of that exercise, we then identified four main hypotheses or group of hypotheses on how the virus could have been introduced in the human population. We decided to take that approach to really cover all the possible pathways, initially without any value and without any assessment or a judgment, but purely to make sure that we would cover all the possible pathways for the introduction of the virus in the human population.
Once we identified these four key hypotheses, we also did literature research to make sure that we would not have missed some valuable options that others could have come up with. Then we sat down and went to these different hypotheses, one by one, and assessed their likelihood by putting forward arguments for and arguments against such hypotheses. And then assessing the likelihood of each of them in a systematic way, in a rational way, using scientific arguments and combining all the information that we had collectively collected in the past four weeks, and also using an extensive search of the literature for useful scientific arguments.
So the four main hypotheses that we evaluated, identified and re-evaluated are first, a direct zoonotic spill-over that is a direct transmission from an animal reservoir or animal species into the human population. So a direct jump from an animal to a human.
The second hypothesis was through the introduction of the virus, through an intermediary host species, meaning another animal species potentially closer to humans, where the virus can potentially adapt, and then circulate and then jump to humans.
The third one was the food chain, in particular, meaning the potential for food, frozen products in particular, acting as the surface for the transmission of the virus into the human population and all the food-related route of transmission.
The last one was the possibility of a laboratory-related incident.
As I have said, we took a systematic approach to look at all these hypotheses, putting arguments for and against, and assessing the likelihood using the standardized set of parameters. Each of them was then used to help us plan in a useful direction to help us continue our way forward into a better understanding of the virus origin。
Our initial findings suggest that the introduction to an intermediary host species is the most likely pathway and one that we require more studies and more specific targeted research.
Similarly and connected to this hypothesis is also including the possibility of transmission through the trade of frozen cold-chain products.
Then we were making the difference between the introduction of the virus into the human population and the possibility of the circulation of the virus through long-distance and through different settings, or the introduction of the virus into a particular city, like a market, for example.
Then the hypothesis of a direct spill-over from an original animal source into the human population is also a possible pathway and is also generating a recommendation for future studies.
However, the finding suggests that the laboratory incident hypothesis is extremely unlikely, and to explain the introduction of the virus into the human population. Therefore, it is not a hypothesis that implies to suggest future studies into our work, to support our future work into the understanding of the origin of the virus.
So the discussion on the different hypotheses and how they will help us direct our future studies was extremely helpful. We have been able to then develop a series of recommendations for future studies, future work in line with the plan we had outlined last July in the terms of reference for how we would go about understanding the origin of the virus and what type of sequence in the studies that would be needed, was developed. The plan we developed in July 2020 is still valid, has been extremely helpful in guiding our work. The recommendations we are making at the end of this mission are in line with that approach.
So we have identified and we’re proposing our report, a large number of valuable recommendations and ideas for future studies. But here I would just mention some of the key studies and key recommendations we are making.
One of them is to expand the existing integrated databases that connect epidemiological, clinical and molecular data on cases, in particular. And extremely useful as well genetic sequences. So all that information can be possible and connected through integrated databases, and that should be done at the global level to facilitate the analysis and connection of data coming from a different part of the world in helping us understanding better and connecting better all the data and information that comes from many of these research projects.
And that will also include data from animal surveys, from environmental surveys and enable us to integrate all this information and make the best use of many of our studies.
In our search of still trying to identify earlier cases, because that will help us better understand the start of the event. We would recommend to continue some of the good work that has been initiated in looking for material that can be analyzed, that is still available from that time. A lot of this material has been already looked at and we heard that many studies have been conducted for the past weeks and months. We have identified potential, new sources of valuable material that could be analyzed and help us perhaps move forward in that direction. One of them, just to give an example, is blood samples from blood banks and not only here in Wuhan and all the cities and provinces of interest but also use that material elsewhere there are initial reports and an indication that perhaps the virus was also present in individuals, in other places and other countries. And that kind of study would help get a better picture of the initial days of the event potentially if some of them turn back positive. So we have to continue our search for material that can be analyzed and give us clues on what happened in the early days of the event.
We should also explore new approaches and new ways of exploring and reinforcing the use of serological tests in some of the material that has already been tested. Here we’re talking about tests that allow us to look in an old sample for traces of the presence of the virus at that time. And there we need new approaches and new ways of doing that.
And of course, we can continue exploring the potential that early cases have. Even if memory fades, if people are less present and accessible and if clinical material is also less and less available, there is still value we had targeted in the studies of some of these cases can potentially yield more useful information. But a lot has already been done in trying to extract all the information that we could extract from these early cases in December 2019.
And for the studies to better explore the hypothesis that an intermediary animal species or an original animal species was involved in the introduction. Here we need to conduct more surveys into certain animal species that could be the reservoir or act as a reservoir and of course including more sampling and more studies of bat population, not only in China because already a lot has been tested in terms of bats in China, but we know that some of the similar species found in China are also found in neighbouring countries in the sub-region and in other parts of the world. And there is under-surveyed because not much has been done in many of these countries in terms of surveying bats. But there we may have some interesting studies as well.
We also have to do much more into understanding the possible role of the cold-chain frozen products in the introduction of the virus and over a distance. We know that the virus can persist and survive on conditions that are found in these frozen environments. But we don’t really understand if the virus can then transmit to human and on which conditions this could happen. It will be interesting to explore if a frozen wild animal that was infected could be a potential vehicle for the introduction of the virus or the viruses into market environments, where we know that the temperature, the humidity, the environment could be conducive to a rapid spread of the virus in such environment. So a lot of work needs to be done to better understand these interesting pathways.
We should also look further back in tracing the source of the products and the source of the animal products in particular that were in the Huanan market on December 19, and go back and see if we can find products that were produced at that time and that are still available to also look at the suppliers to these vendors in the market. See if we can go further back in terms of identify interesting clues in the farming environment in the species being raised in these farms and where they were potentially coming from before that. This is another area worth exploring.
What was important for us when we developed our hypotheses was to make sure that they were not geographically bound because since the beginning we have taken an open approach in terms of not limiting ourselves in this manner. One of the clear reason is that the possible paths from whatever original animal species, all the way through the Huanan Market could have taken a very long and convoluted path, involving also movements across borders, travels, etc., before arriving in the Huanan market. Therefore, it’s also very interesting to follow up on every one of these clues and preliminary reports and indications that perhaps here and there in other places in the world. There were individuals who were infected and try to follow up on these and connect again dots, connect the different pieces of information to try to get a better understanding of this whole picture and again, just following all the leads, following the science, following well-designed and conducted studies.
Apologize for these two lengthy introductions, but we feel it was necessary to present you with a clear picture of all the work that we have conducted in the past four weeks before and trying to give you a picture of all our findings and conclusions. And I would now give the floor back to Doctor Mi Feng. Thank you.
Thank you, Doctor Peter. Just now we have listened to the introduction from the team leaders from both sides. They have been introducing the major content and highlights of the joint report. Now we would like to take your questions. Before you raise your question, please introduce yourself by telling us which news agency you’re with. In order to provide more chances to different journalists, one question from one journalist, please. Thank you. Now we are glad to take your question.
Hello, there. My name is Josh, a reporter with Thompson Reuters in Shanghai. I’d like to see if we drill down with a bit more specificity about the likelihood for these hypotheses that were presented. So whether it is possible for each of the three of us actually gives a percentage of the likelihood to which we think that the virus either originated from wildlife and subsequently transition to a human or through some form of frozen food.
Peter over to you. Thank you.
Thank you. And I will ask Marion to try to give you an answer.
Yes, thank you very much. So this is a very tough question. What we really did is develop the figure that was shown to help structure our thinking, but be systematic about it. What that does is it lists from literature, from studies, various evidence for or against and various uncertainty. And that is what we then have used to assess what do we think is more or less likely. I think going into exact percentages is really overstating what can be done. It’s really developed to help us structure our thinking, also structure the discussions somewhat because these are very complex questions and there are many different potential routes that you can think of. That’s the key use of it. So we’ve gone as far as broad categories, most likely, less likely. And that’s how I think, for the time being, we will use this. What we also discussed is that whenever new information becomes available and that could be any time because there are ongoing studies in different parts of the world, we can make this again and say with this new information, does our assessment of these different pathways change.
And maybe in our complete report, we will list all elements that were used in the assessment, including the literature, the studies, all the aspects that we included to make that assessment.
I would like to invite Professor Liang Wannian to offer additional comment.
I applaud the view offered by Doctor Marion. Actually, there will be a more detailed introduction of the methodology and more abundant evidence that is going to be demonstrated in the full joint report and also in the future recommendations and suggestions for the research orientations. Actually one of the deepest impressions for me is that as regards the question you are asking, it requires a lot of daunting and demanding efforts. We have tried our best to provide an evaluation of the possible hypothesis and also other kinds of possibilities in a scientific way by unleashing
Source: JUST Commentary, Malaysia