WHO will start its investigation into coronavirus origins in Wuhan but says case zero may be elsewhere

Zhuang Pinghui
·4-min read

World Health Organisation research into the origins of the coronavirus that causes Covid-19 will start in Wuhan, but the WHO stressed that the central Chinese city might not be the place where the virus jumped from bats to humans.

Meanwhile, a Wuhan laboratory that has studied coronaviruses extensively and that US President Donald Trump claimed could be the origin of the virus would not be investigated, an official in charge of the lab told US television network NBC.

The new coronavirus outbreak was first reported in Wuhan in central Hubei province in December 2019, with most cases related to a seafood wholesale market. A retrospective study published in The Lancet journal recorded that the first patient showed symptoms on December 1.

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At a routine Covid-19 briefing on Monday, Michael Ryan, executive director of the WHO Health Emergencies Programme, said case zero – referring to the first person infected in the epidemic – could be somewhere else.

“Case zero is not always where your first cluster is. Case zero is obviously before in time but it may be in another place, so that is why you have to keep an open mind,” Ryan said.

“All hypotheses are on the table. You start with an open mind and you follow the evidence and you follow the data. If you follow the data and the science you will find hopefully the point at which the disease crossed the species barrier.

“It took years to do it in the case of Middle East respiratory syndrome. It's never been fully established in the case of Sars [severe acute respiratory syndrome] in terms of the actual event that crossed the animal and human barrier and it does prove very, very difficult to find that initiation point.”

WHO Health Emergencies Programme Director Michael Ryan says all hypotheses are on the table. Photo: AFP
WHO Health Emergencies Programme Director Michael Ryan says all hypotheses are on the table. Photo: AFP

His colleague Maria Van Kerkhove, an epidemiologist with the WHO, said investigations into emerging zoonotic diseases normally started in the place where the first cases were identified to study exposure of the individuals, their travel, workplace activities and their daily life before they developed symptoms.

But the mission could be time consuming and did not guarantee a result, she said.

WHO gears up for main mission into China to hunt for Covid-19 origins

An advance team of two WHO experts, specialists in animal health and epidemiology, went to China early last month and stayed there for weeks to determine the scope and itinerary for a larger-scale WHO-led international investigation to follow.

Meanwhile, Wang Yanyi, director of the Wuhan Institute of Virology, said she understood a laboratory within the institute, where coronavirus has been studied for years, would not be investigated.

Wang told NBC in a site interview released on Monday that she took part in the discussion on how to conduct the study with the WHO experts and believed the institute was not part of the investigation.

“The words they used were study, project, cooperation. No investigation was mentioned,” Wang said.

She said researchers at the lab would not be cut off from the mission but instead “actively join” the international team of experts in the origin tracing.

She shrugged off conspiracy theories by saying none of the institute’s employees had been infected by the coronavirus and the sequence of a virus held at the lab and collected from a bat cave in the southwestern province of Yunnan, which in part triggered the lab leak theory, was still decades away in evolution from Sars-CoV-2, the official name of the coronavirus.

“Tests on the people around that mine cave showed no one was infected with Sars-related coronaviruses,” Wang added.

Wang said the lab had only the sequence, not the actual bat virus.

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