In the clearest sign yet of the contents of the highly anticipated WHO report, experts say the disease was most likely brought into the Huanan seafood market in Wuhan either in live animals or frozen meat.
Such findings would be highly controversial in the light of mounting suspicion over the Wuhan Institute of Virology’s work with bats known to carry the Covid-19 virus.
The findings would also fuel allegations that the investigation was a ‘whitewash’ due to the close links between China and the WHO.
A man wearing a protective face mask walks past optical shops on the second floor of the Huanan Seafood Market in Wuhan, China, in December last year
Senior members of the investigating team have suggested the report will put forward the ‘frozen food theory’ as the best explanation for the origin of the pandemic, which has killed more than two million people globally.
Speaking at a conference organised by the independent Chatham House think-tank last week, Peter Daszak, a British zoologist who was part of the WHO team in China, said investigators established a link between the Wuhan market and regions of South China that are home to bats carrying strains of coronavirus.
‘We found there was a conduit from Wuhan to the provinces in South China where the closest relative viruses to SARS-Covid-2 are found in bats,’ he said.
‘So that’s quite important – it provides a link and a pathway by which the virus could convincingly spill over from wildlife either into people or animals farmed in the region and shipped into the Wuhan market by some means.’
He said the most likely cause was ‘that a bat or other wildlife species carried a virus as a progenitor of the SARS-Covid-2 virus. And it got into domestic animals – wildlife bred in farms perhaps – or people associated with that, and got into the Wuhan market that way. I believe that’s the most likely scenario’.
Professor Marion Koopmans, a Dutch virologist on the WHO team who joined Dr Daszak at the conference, said frozen meat was the most likely carrier, despite Chinese scientists recently blaming contaminated packaging.
Marion Koopmans (left) and Peter Daszak (right), members of the WHO team investigating the origins of Covid, pictured in Wuhan last month
The P4 laboratory at the Wuhan Institute of Virology in Wuhan in China's central Hubei province (file photo)
‘The origin most likely, of course, is not the outside of the frozen package, it may be the frozen wild animal,’ she said.
Both scientists rejected claims that the virus leaked from the Wuhan lab, even though it had the world’s largest collection of bat coronaviruses and had isolated the closest relative of the Covid-19 pathogen. Dr Daszak said: ‘I’ve not seen any evidence of an accidental leak from a lab.’
But a US intelligence report in January said there was strong evidence pointing to the lab as the source, adding that some of its employees had suffered Covid-like symptoms in late 2019.
In an unexpected development last night, Professor Koopmans admitted to America’s NBC News that at least two lab specialists fell ill that autumn. But she insisted that all scientists at the lab had tested negative for the virus last April.
The WHO’s investigation has already been dismissed as a ‘charade’ because its officials’ movements were controlled by the Chinese authorities.
Sam Armstrong, of the Henry Jackson Society foreign policy think-tank, said: ‘The WHO must not continue to indulge the evidence-free and bizarre frozen fish theory in an attempt to exonerate China.’