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WHO Probe Into Origin Of COVID-19 Raises More Questions Than Answers

SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:

One of the early conspiracies about the coronavirus was that it was leaked from a lab in Wuhan, China. But now a team of international scientists from the World Health Organization has said that is very unlikely. They are just completing an investigation into the origins of the virus and came out with their findings today. NPR's Emily Feng is on the line with us from Beijing. Hi, Emily.

EMILY FENG, BYLINE: Hey, Sacha.

PFEIFFER: What did these scientists find?

FENG: Well, they actually raised more questions than actual findings. For one, they started with saying they still do not know how the virus adapted to humans and how it got to Wuhan. So in other words, they don't know how it started. One theory they did dismiss, as you mentioned, was that it came from a lab leak. But they are pursuing a number of other theories that might explain how it passed from animal to animal and then infected humans. And they also have a theory about how it got to Wuhan, the city in China, in the first place. They think it might have come from frozen food. Here's Dr. Peter Ben Embarek, who led that WHO team.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PETER BEN EMBAREK: We know that the virus can persist and survive in conditions that are found in these cold and frozen environments. But we don't really understand if the virus can then transmit to humans and under which conditions.

FENG: This was kind of an astonishing statement because this directly reverses existing international guidance, which says surface transmission of COVID is improbable. But it is a theory China has promoted, and Beijing says it explains a number of its more recent smaller outbreaks.

PFEIFFER: This mission, I understand, because it was international, included Chinese scientists, or Chinese scientists were somehow involved. What does the WHO's Chinese counterparts have to say about this?

FENG: Well, they said that they helped WHO scientists sample tens of thousands of genetic and blood samples from Chinese citizens in the last half of 2019. And they stress that they could not find any evidence the pandemic began in China before December 2019. And this is notable because Italian doctors in Italy say they have samples from a case dating from November 2019 of COVID there. And this bolsters China's theory that the virus did not solely begin in Wuhan. Here's Dr. Liang Wannian (ph) who is an expert with China's national health authorities, and he's helping lead their COVID effort.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LIANG WANNIAN: (Non-English language spoken).

FENG: He's saying "Huanan Market may not be where the earliest incidents of the novel coronavirus occurred. We cannot say it was one of the first transmission sites." And Dr. Liang goes on to say he's calling for further WHO origin tracing, quote, "not to be bound to any geographic location," which could open up a WHO investigation, say, in the U.S., which Chinese officials have suggested without evidence is where the novel coronavirus actually began.

PFEIFFER: The U.S. has raised concerns about the transparency of this investigation. And last week, as the investigation was ongoing, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said China was falling short of providing all the information necessary to the international community about the pandemic. Was the WHO, do we know, able to conduct a free and independent visit?

FENG: We don't know yet because none of the WHO members on the team in Wuhan have given any detailed interviews. Their trip itinerary has never been publicized. We only know about it because members of the media followed them at each stop. But it's not clear who decided which sites they got to visit. Their investigation about the origins of the virus is going to take years to get answers, and that answer is probably not going to be very satisfying because as numerous other studies have shown, the virus likely passed from different animals until it got to humans, likely in various countries. So responsibility about who started the virus is sort of a moot question.

PFEIFFER: NPR's Emily Feng in Beijing, thank you.

FENG: Thanks, Sacha. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.