Preliminary comments by the WHO scientists who have just completed 2 weeks in China dedicated to investigating the possible origins of the COVID-19 pandemic are pretty much as expected—they have more information but nothing definitive.
WHO given wide access
The WHO team has said they submitted a list of places to visit and were granted access to all requested sites. Coming so late after the outbreak began and given China’s general lack of transparency on the issue this is unlikely to squelch questions relative to China’s motives and how it has handled the pandemic overall. But it is a welcome sign and perhaps signals more transparency moving forward (but don’t count on that until it happens)
“Most likely scenario” is jumping from animal to human
An outbreak like this does not lend itself easily to definitive answers. Based on analysis of the cluster of outbreaks around the outdoor market in Wuhan that sold irregular wildlife products, the WHO said it fit the pattern of an outbreak originating in that area which lends credence to the idea that it started in animals and then jumped to humans, which is a common method of transmitting new diseases. However, the experts cannot say definitively that this means the virus originated in that market, only that a large outbreak started there.
China continues to advance other theories
China has suggested the virus could have been transmitted via frozen food, although the WHO experts restated that they think this is highly unlikely. Chinese doctors working with the WHO team also said that reports of cases outside China prior to the Wuhan outbreak need to be investigated further. Of course, on this second point, it is true that the possibility of cases outside China need to be investigated thoroughly. But, for an issue that has already been highly politicized (not just by China), if China continues to advance marginal theories and to appear to be most interested in any idea that deflects attention from China, there will continue to be a deficit of trust around the investigation in general.
WHO lab assessment not persuasive
The WHO investigators said that, based on an assessment of safety procedures at Chinese labs, they think the likelihood that the virus escaped from a lab is very remote. Having conducted quality audits on dozens and dozens of Chinese factors, including safety reviews, I can say for certain that any assessment coming one year after the occurrence is worth almost nothing. There is virtually no way to know if anything was altered since a year ago. Even if no additional equipment or procedures were added, it is not only impossible to ascertain if the procedures were being followed one year ago, given the operational environment in a country with a short history relative to biomedical research like China, the chances of gaps in safety practices is actually fairly high. So the WHO assessment in this area carries little weight for me.
However, I do think it is possible for the WHO team to say that, based on the cluster of the outbreak around the Wuhan food market, it is much more likely that the virus originated at that market as opposed to being the result of a lab leak. There is no hard evidence pointing to the lab, just speculation that it could have come from the lab. But if the overall fact pattern supports another conclusion, then the lab should be considered a lesser possibility.
Much more work needs to be done for us to fully understand COVID-19: Where it started, how it spread, why some places were impacted more than others. The long overdue WHO trip to China is just a piece of the puzzle. As more details are released we might learn more. But we didn’t expect anything definitive and it looks like our expectations will be met.