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WHO sets up new team to probe origins of COVID-19, wants China to give data on Wuhan outbreak

WHO's new team will investigate the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic

The World Health Organization (WHO) has set up a new team of 26 scientists to revive the stalled inquiry into the origin of COVID-19 and urged China to provide data on the first outbreak of the disease in the country.

WHO's top emergency expert Mike Ryan said the new panel “may be the last chance to establish the origin of SARS-CoV-2, a virus that has stopped our whole world".

The first human cases of COVID-19 were reported in the central Chinese city of Wuhan in December 2019. China has repeatedly dismissed theories that the virus leaked from one of its laboratories and had in August rejected the WHO’s calls for a renewed inquiry into the origins of coronavirus.

Maria van Kerkhove, WHO technical lead on COVID-19, anticipates that there would be more WHO-led international missions to China which would require the country's cooperation.

She told a news conference that "more than three dozen recommended studies must still to be carried out to determine how the virus crossed from the animal species to humans.”

Reported Chinese testing for antibodies in Wuhan residents in 2019 will be "absolutely critical to understanding the virus's origins,” van Kerkhove said.

Also read:  US report says Covid mystery can be solved only if China gives more info on Wuhan outbreak

The WHO, in an editorial in the journal Science, said that detailed investigations of the earliest known and suspected cases in China prior to December 2019 were still needed, including analyses of stored blood samples from 2019 in Wuhan and retrospective searches of hospital and mortality data for earlier cases.

Labs in the area where the first reports of human infections emerged in Wuhan must be a focus, as ruling out an accident requires sufficient evidence, it said.

WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus has said that the investigation was hampered by a dearth of raw data pertaining to the first days of the outbreak's spread and has called for lab audits.

After much delay, a WHO team of international experts went to Wuhan in January 2021 to produce a first phase report, written in conjunction with their Chinese counterparts. The report presented in March did not come out with any firm conclusion, but ranked four hypotheses.

The report had come in for sharp criticism as the WHO team was kept largely confined to their hotel rooms and not given adequate freedom to carry out a proper investigation. Crucial data related to the outbreak of the virus in Wuhan was also not made available to the team.

However, Chen Xu, China's ambassador to the UN in Geneva, told a separate news conference the conclusions of the joint study were "quite clear," adding that as international teams had been sent to China twice already.

The pandemic has killed more than 4.85 million people and battered the global economy since the virus was first detected in Wuhan in December 2019.