WHO Reaffirms the Coronavirus Likely Came From an Animal, Not a Lab Accident

But many mysteries remain about its origins

WHO official Peter Ben Embarek at Tuesday’s press conference. Photo: HECTOR RETAMAL/AFP via Getty Images

On Tuesday, World Health Organization scientists announced at a press conference in Wuhan that it was “extremely unlikely” the novel coronavirus known as Covid-19 came from a lab accident. They said it probably originated in animals, though it remains unclear whether it passed directly from animals to humans or whether there was an intermediary host.

The researchers ruled out the hypothesis that the virus emerged from a lab based on evidence gathered during 12 days of field research, the first step in a large effort to investigate the virus’s origins. Some have speculated that the virus was accidentally released from the Wuhan Institute of Virology, but WHO official Peter Ben Embarek said at the conference that “it was very unlikely that anything could escape from such a place.” While acknowledging that such accidents do occur, Embarek said they are rare and even more unlikely because “nowhere previously was this particular virus researched or identified or known.” Science journalist Kai Kupferschmidt highlighted these points in a very thorough Twitter thread of the conference, which I highly recommend.

It’s far more likely that the virus came from animals, though how that happened is still unclear. The research indicates that there was transmission in the Huanan wet market in Wuhan in December 2019, but there is also evidence that the virus was also circulating outside of the market at the time. Wet markets have garnered a lot of scrutiny since the emergence of Covid-19 because they allow humans to come into close contact with animals, including wildlife that may be carrying diseases. Wildlife found in Huanan market included ferret, badger, and other animals that could be traced to regions where bats are known to harbor coronaviruses, though samples showed no positives, noted National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine microbial threats chair Peter Daszak, PhD, on Twitter.

Embarek raised the possibility that the virus might have emerged from a frozen animal product. “Among the more interesting products were frozen wildlife animals,” he said, as Bloomberg reported. “Some of these species are known to be susceptible to these kinds of viruses.”

The important takeaway here is that the WHO has confirmed what many scientists had already suspected: that the coronavirus has a natural origin and wasn’t released accidentally (or purposely) from a lab. The “lab leak” hypothesis gained traction in 2020 in part because it was promoted by Donald Trump, but studies of the virus’s genetics have pointed to an animal origin, likely bats.

Many questions still remain about the origins of the coronavirus. Last year in Elemental, Mariana Lenharo wrote a comprehensive overview of these questions and the kinds of data needed to find answers to them. Read it at the link below, and check the Coronavirus Blog for updates on the WHO’s ongoing investigation into the coronavirus’s origins.

Read more in Elemental:

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A blog from Medium for Covid-19 news, advice, and commentary.

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Yasmin Tayag

Yasmin Tayag

Editor, Medium Coronavirus Blog. Senior editor at Future Human by OneZero. Previously: science at Inverse, genetics at NYU.

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