WHO Investigation Panel Reports on the Origin of COVID in China


An international team assembled by the World Health Organization (WHO) reported on February 9th on their investigations into the origins of COVID-19.  The four-week evaluation included two weeks of quarantine, allowing Zoom consultation with counterparts in the China National Health Commission followed by site visits and direct discussions.


The Blue-Ribbon Panel chaired by Dr. Peter Embarek advanced a hypothesis that COVID arose by extension from an animal host passing through an intermediary species and then to humans. This hypothesis corresponds to an understanding of the emergence of Nipah and Hendra viruses, SARS and MERS.  After visits to the Wuhan Institute of Virology, the Hunan Seafood Market, the Wuhan Center for Disease Control, various hospitals where interviews were conducted with scientists and clinicians, there is as yet no certainty as to the specific hosts or mechanism for the adaptations or when they occurred.


Dr. Peter Ben Embarek Leader
of the WHO Investigation Panel

The WHO panel determined that 174 confirmed cases were diagnosed in early December 2019 in Wuhan, presuming many thousand infected individuals at this time. There were 13 different variants of the SARS-CoV-2 virus identified by genome sequencing suggesting circulation of the virus for a prolonged period prior to December. China is currently examining 200,000 retention serum samples from blood banks to ascertain the temporal and spatial presence of specific antibodies against SARS-CoV-2. It is noted that research extending over a number of years was required to identify the origin of SARS and that the source of Ebolavirus has yet to be determined.


The Commission clearly rejected the unfounded speculation that the virus "leaked" or was deliberately released from the Wuhan Institute of Virology. This canard is regarded as unjustified Sinophobic rhetoric for domestic U.S. political purposes.


A recent publication notes that viruses similar to SARS-CoV-2 have been actively circulating in bats in Southeast Asia for some time.  A recent study demonstrated a related coronavirus in Rhinolophus bats in a cave in Southern Thailand. This virus was isolated from a pangolin in the same area.  The Thai bat virus is similar to a bat virus isolated in Yunnan Province in China.  The geographic extent of the related bat viruses includes Japan, China and Thailand encompassing a 3,000-mile range.


It is understood that China was relatively cooperative with the WHO panel despite sensitivity to international criticism arising from an obvious true-to-form initial cover-up of the emerging infection. Health authorities in China did not provide an opportunity for the Panel to review raw data on cases that would have been important in determining when and where the infection emerged.

Rejoining the WHO will be to the benefit of the U.S. both with respect to COVID-19 but also in anticipation of the next emerging disease that is considered inevitable.