WHO probe finds lab leak of Covid ‘extremely unlikely’

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It is “extremely unlikely” that a laboratory leak caused the first coronavirus cases in Wuhan, China, according to a copy of a World Health Organization report on the virus’ origins obtained by POLITICO.

An expert team assembled by WHO and China said that an animal most likely passed the virus to humans after catching it from a bat. The team did not rule out that it could have come directly from a bat or from frozen food, as Chinese regulators have suggested.

The report, which a source familiar says is the final version set to be released by the global health group, leaked days after Trump CDC chief Robert Redfield said he still thinks the virus escaped a Wuhan lab, a theory most experts say is possible but not probable.

“The other people don’t believe that. That’s fine. Science will eventually figure it out,” Redfield told CNN’s Sanjay Gupta.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Friday that the administration would withhold judgment on the origins of the virus until it had seen the WHO report. U.S. national security adviser Jake Sullivan previously raised concerns about a lack of transparency in the investigation.

“We’ll see what the report says. Where we have concerns, we’ll look at the underlying data, if we have access to that. And then we’ll have to make a determination through an interagency process on what’s next,” Psaki told reporters.

The WHO began drawing together a panel of international experts — including epidemiologists, data scientists and experts in labs, food safety and animal health — last summer. China cleared the experts to begin their investigation in October 2020.

The report’s findings echo earlier comments from senior WHO officials who have dismissed the theory that the virus leaked from a Chinese lab. But it also acknowledged that “it remains to be determined where SARS-CoV-2 originated.” And although the virus was first identified in Wuhan, China, after a cluster of cases in December 2019, “to date it is uncertain from where the first cases originated.”

The experts recommend global investigations into wildlife thought to harbor coronaviruses, to better understand their origin and spread especially among bats and other possible suspects such as pangolins.

The Trump administration last year abruptly ended funding for a nonprofit U.S. research group, EcoHealth Alliance, studying animal origins of coronaviruses because of its previous work with the Wuhan infectious disease lab at the center of unsubstantiated theories about a virus leak.

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