COVID-19 went from bats to another animal and then humans: WHO report

WHO/China team in Wuhan for coronavirus origin study, China, February 3, 2021. REUTERS/Aly Song
WHO/China team in Wuhan for coronavirus origin study, China, February 3, 2021. REUTERS/Aly Song

A joint WHO-China study has concluded that it’s very likely that COVID-19 first passed to humans from a bat through another animal, according to the final version of the report, of which AFP obtained a copy Monday before the official release.

Experts believe that the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes the COVID-19 disease originally came from bats. One theory examined was that the virus jumped directly from bats to humans, but experts say there’s a missing link in that theory.

“Although the closest related viruses have been found in bats, the evolutionary distance between these bat viruses and SARS-CoV-2 is estimated to be several decades, suggesting a missing link,” the report said.

A more likely scenario, the report found, was that the virus had first jumped from bats to another animal, which in turn infected humans.

“The scenario including introduction through an intermediary host was considered to be likely to very likely,” it said, although it did not conclude which animal that could be.

Humans are the main reason that different animals come into close contact with each other and in unnatural close contact with humans.

“When we destroy nature and take over natural habitats, we break the healthy balance and boundaries of the natural world, forcing wildlife into closer contact with each other, farm animals and people,” a World Wildlife Fund (WWF) video highlighted during Earth Hour.

“And all this makes it easier for diseases to spread between animals and people.”

During a press conference in Wuhan on February 9 at the end of the study, the experts from the World Health Organisation (WHO) and China made clear that they could not yet draw any firm conclusions.

But they said they had worked to rank a number of hypotheses according to how likely they were.

The report did not rule out transmission through frozen food, since the virus appears to be able to survive at freezing temperatures, saying that “introduction via cold/ food chain products is considered possible”.

Finally, the report examined the idea of a lab leak from, for instance, the Wuhan Institute of Virology. This theory was seen as “extremely unlikely”. Experts said that there was no record of any virus resembling SARS-CoV-2 in any laboratory before December 2019.

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