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Officials with the World Heath Organization said Tuesday it was "very unlikely" the coronavirus pandemic originated in a Chinese laboratory.
The finding comes after a two-week investigation in Wuhan, China, conducted by the WHO and a team of Chinese health officials. It runs counter to a theory floated by Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., and some others, suggesting the SARS-CoV-2 virus may have escaped from the Wuhan Institute of Virology and that the breach was covered up by the Chinese government.
“It was very unlikely that anything could escape from such a place. And we also know that when lab accidents happen, they are of course extremely rare,” Peter Ben Embarek, a Danish member of the WHO team, said Tuesday at a news conference.
The WHO, which is trying to determine the origins of the virus first detected in bats, visited the Wuhan Institute of Virology and all but ruled out that it had accidentally leaked from inside that facility.
Officials at the lab, Embarek said, provided “detailed descriptions of the center’s research, both present and past, on all projects involving bats and coronaviruses and more advanced projects.”
But while the WHO has concluded that the institute is not likely the source of the virus that has so far led to the deaths of more than 2.3 million people worldwide, it still cannot explain how SARS-CoV-2 made the jump to human beings.
“Did we change dramatically the picture we had beforehand? I don’t think so,” Embarek said. “Did we improve our understanding? Did we add details to that picture? Absolutely.”
“We know the virus can persist and survive in conditions that are found in cold and frozen environments. But we don’t understand if the virus can then transmit to humans, and under which conditions,” Embarek added.
On Sunday, Cotton continued to press his contention that the virus may have leaked from the lab in Wuhan, and lashed out at the Washington Post and the New York Times for calling his assertion a “conspiracy theory.”
Cotton cited a Feb. 5 piece by the Post’s editorial board that backed up his initial calls for a thorough investigation of the lab.
“That is the possibility of a laboratory accident or leak. It could have involved a virus that was improperly disposed of or perhaps infected a laboratory worker who then passed it to others,” the piece stated while noting that the Wuhan Institute of Virology had specifically studied coronaviruses.
The initial findings of the WHO investigation of the institute seem unlikely to sway many skeptical Americans, however.
In describing the interactions with officials at the lab, Embarek said, “They’re the best ones to dismiss the claims and provide answers to all the questions.”
Mistrust of the WHO ballooned over the last year as then-President Donald Trump repeatedly attacked the organization and withdrew U.S. financial support from the group in July. On his first day in office, President Biden retracted Trump’s decision and named Dr. Anthony Fauci to lead the U.S. delegation to the agency’s executive board.
“The WHO plays a crucial role in the world’s fight against the deadly COVID-19 pandemic as well as countless other threats to global health and health security,” Biden said in a letter to United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres.
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