A team of international experts investigating the origins of COVID-19 have all but dismissed a theory that the virus came from a laboratory.
Peter Ben Embarek, head of the World Health Organisation (WHO) mission, said it was “extremely unlikely” that the virus leaked from a lab in the Chinese city of Wuhan.
He said more work is needed to identify the source of the virus.
The comments came at the conclusion of a joint WHO-China mission.
Wuhan, in China’s western Hubei province, is the first place in the world that the virus was detected. Since then, more than 106 million cases and 2.3 million deaths have been reported worldwide.
Dr. Embarek told a press conference that the investigation had uncovered new information, but had not dramatically changed the picture of the outbreak.
Experts believe the virus is likely to have originated in animals before spreading to humans, but they are not sure how.
Dr. Embarek said work to identify the origins of COVID-19 pointed to a “natural reservoir” in bats, but that it is unlikely this happened in Wuhan.
The experts said there is “no indication” that the virus was circulating in Wuhan before the first official cases were recorded there in December 2019.
Liang Wannian, an expert with China’s Health Commission, said COVID-19 could have been in other regions before it was detected in Wuhan.
It was unlikely that the expert group, in its politically-charged mission, would be able to pinpoint the source of the pandemic in China a year after it began. But after visiting the Wuhan Institute of Virology, they have closed the lid on a controversial theory that coronavirus came from a lab leak or was made by scientists.
Their search for clues also included a visit to the now-famous wet market in Huanan – selling fish, meat and live wild animals – that was linked to some of the first human cases.
The team say the virus may have jumped from animals to humans, but they don’t have the proof yet.
Possible carriers include bats and pangolins, but tests so far have yet to find convincing evidence for this. Another line of investigation is whether the virus could have spread through imported frozen food. The hunt for the origin will continue.