World Health Organisation scientists have given credibility to Beijing’s claim the Covid-19 pandemic may have started outside China and been brought in via frozen food imports.
A team of 14 scientists investigating the origin of the pandemic wrapped up their month-long fact-finding mission by echoing Communist Party’s assertions that ‘cold-chain products’ such as Australian beef, could have led to the initial outbreak.
Peter Embarek, leader of the WHO team, said further studies should be carried out into whether the virus was imported into the country – possibly on frozen meats sold at the Huanan Seafood market in Wuhan where the first cluster of cases was detected in December 2019.
WHO investigators also ruled out the possibility the virus leaked from a lab, calling it ‘extremely unlikely’ and declaring no further study should be undertaken into the theory.
Australian Prime Minister (left) is pictured shaking hands with Chinese President Xi Jinping (right)
A fridge displaying beef labelled from Australia are on sale at a supermarket in Beijing on Nov 24, 2020
The heavily-controlled visit is a major PR coup for the authoritarian state, which has repeatedly tried to pin the blame on other countries.
It will also give ammunition to WHO’s critics, who feared the investigation would be used to give legitimacy to a Chinese white-washing exercise – with possibly embarrassing or incriminating evidence hidden from investigators.
In the aftermath of the initial outbreak Beijing officials tried desperately to cover-up the growing number of deaths in Hubei Province by silencing anyone who tried to warn about the respiratory disease.
Since then China has attempted to shift the narrative though it’s ‘Wolf Warrior’ diplomats and state-owned media mouthpieces.
‘As the mounting sporadic outbreaks in China were found to be related to imported cold-chain products, with other parts of the world, including Europe and the American continent, reportedly discovering signs of the coronavirus earlier than Wuhan,’an article in The Global Times asked in December last year.
‘It begs a new hypothesis – did the early outbreak in Wuhan originate from imported frozen food?’
Chinese officials also pointed the finger at a number of other countries including Bangladesh, the US, Greece, India, Italy, Czech Republic, Russia, and Serbia.
Chinese Foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said: ‘The tracing of the virus origin will most likely involve multiple countries and localities.’
Wuhan doctor Li Wenliang blew the whistle on the mysterious new coronavirus in December 2019 and died in February 2020 after contracting the virus from a patient and died in February 2020 after contracting the virus from a patient
Australia’s diplomatic relationship with China soured during the pandemic after Prime Minister Scott Morison called for the investigation into the origins of coronavirus, and the subsequent cover-ups which followed.
China retaliated by relentlessly targeting Australia in an increasingly aggressive and belligerent campaign of economic sanctions and blockades Beijing.
China imposed a litany of unofficial bans and arbitrary tariffs on billions of dollars worth of Australia exports after Canberra called for the inquiry.
Six of Australia’s top beef distributors were hit with blanket bans along with cotton, timbre, seafood and coal producers.
The wine industry Down Under was hit with a crippling 212 per cent tariff – contravening the two nation’s 2015 Free Trade agreement – while barely growers also had an 80 per cent barrier slapped on exports.
Australia is now preparing to take legal action against China at a World Trade Organisation tribunal, but the process to have the tariffs removed could take several years.
Diplomatic relations between Australia and China have deteriorated significantly during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. Pictured: Xi Jinping (left) and Scott Morrison (right)
Beef exports to China are worth $2.8billion representing 25 per cent of all Australian overseas sales
The WHO has previously come under fire from world leaders including ex-US President Trump for being ‘China-centric’ and uncritically parroting Beijing propaganda – playing down the severity of the disease until it was too late to stop it becoming a crippling pandemic.
Dr Tedros, the WHO chief, has also come in for heavy criticism for his praise of China – describing its ‘commitment to transparency’ as ‘beyond words’ during the early stages of the outbreak, despite strong doubts about data coming from Beijing and a past history of covering up potential pandemics.
It was also revealed that Dr Tedros received support from Beijing while in the running to become WHO chief, and that China has often donated large sums of money to governments or organisations that he has been a part of.
During his press conference, Dr Embarek also backed assertions from Beijing that there is no evidence of transmission ‘in Wuhan or elsewhere’ in China before December 2019 – despite multiple studies suggesting the virus was circulating globally months earlier than that.
Outlining the findings of his team’s month-long study trip, Dr Embarek said the team had failed to establish where the virus came from or how it first jumped into humans. Instead, he said the team had come up with four theories about its origins.
Peter Embarek, lead researcher for WHO in Wuhan, has put forward four theories about how the virus infected humans: Direct transfer from source animal into people, transfer via an intermediary animal, transfer via food, and transfer via a lab leak (pictured, a chart showing the four routes)
Dr Embarek said his team has ruled out the possibility that the virus leaked from a lab such as the Wuhan Institute of Virology (pictured), saying such a leak is ‘extremely unlikely’ and should not be investigated further
China’s official timeline vs new evidence
Dec 8, 2019 – Earliest date that China has acknowledged an infection
Dec 31 – China first reported ‘pneumonia of unknown cause’ to the World Health Organisation
Jan 1, 2020 – Wuhan seafood market closed for disinfection
Jan 11 – China reported its first death
Jan 23 – Wuhan locked down
Jan 31 – WHO declared ‘outbreak of international concern’ as China admitted having thousands of cases
Feb 23 – Italy reports cluster of cases in first major outbreak in the West
Sep 2019– Blood samples are taken in a lung cancer screening trial in Italy which later test positive for coronavirus
Oct-Dec – Rise in ‘flu and pneumonia’ cases in northern Italy which could be linked to coronavirus
Nov – Sewage samples taken in Florianópolis, Brazil, suggest virus was present
Nov 10 – Milanese woman has a skin biopsy, producing a sample which later shows signs of the virus
Nov 17 – Leaked documents suggest case detected in China on this date
Dec 1 – Chinese researchers report an infection on this date in a peer-reviewed study, but it has not been acknowledged by Beijing
Dec 18 – Sewage samples taken in Milan and Turin suggest virus was circulating in the cities
Jan 2020 – Sewage samples from Barcelona suggest virus was in the city
He said the most likely explanation is that the virus passed from its original host animal into an intermediary animal that comes into close contact with humans, before making the leap into people.
Intermediary animals could include frozen or chilled animal products sold at markets in Wuhan, including those imported from overseas, he said, outlining his second theory.
The next most-likely theory is that the virus jumped directly from its original host into humans, Dr Embarek said, putting forward bats as a likely source.
But, he said, humans and bats do not come into close contact in Wuhan and swabs of bats and various other animal species in China – including wild animals, pets, and farm animals – has failed to find the original source.
Dr Embarek called for more research to be carried out into all three of these theories, and said teams should be looking outside as well as inside of China’s borders.
The only theory he rejected out-of-hand was that the virus had leaked from a lab, saying such an event was ‘extremely unlikely’.
Dr Liang Wannian, the head of China’s Wuhan research team, further agreed – claiming that there is no evidence that Covid was present at any facility in China before appearing in humans.
If the virus was not present in a lab before the outbreak then it could not have escaped, he said.
Dr Wannian instead pushed the theory – which has become prevalent in China in recent weeks – that frozen food could have been the source, saying his research shows Covid can survive for a long time at low temperatures.
This means that the virus could have travelled long distances to reach Wuhan, he added, without specifically saying that it came from overseas.
He further revealed that Huanan Seafood Market – the market where the first cluster of Covid cases was detected – was not the only market in the city to be hit by the infection.
‘While some of the early cases had close association with Huanan Seafood Market, others were associated with other markets,’ he said, ‘and other cases have no market association at all.
‘It is likely that Huanan Market acted as focus for virus transmission, but the virus was also transmitted elsewhere at the same time. It is not possible on basis of current information to establish how the virus was introduced into Hunan market.’
In fact, he claimed, the earliest confirmed case of Covid in Wuhan – which occurred on December 8 – had no connection to any market within the city.
He added that samples taken from early cases at Huanan market showed slight variations in the virus, implying that it had been present in humans for an unknown length of time before causing those infections.
Putting forward other explanations for how the virus crossed into humans, Dr Wannian suggested that cats could have acted as an intermediary animal after cases were reported in felines around the world.
He also pointed to Covid infections in mink as evidence of another host animal, rather than bats or pangolins – both animals which are commonly used in traditional Chinese medicine and cooking.
He added that tens of thousands of PCR tests have been conducted on animals around China since the initial outbreak, including on domestically farmed animals, wild animals, and pets.
All of the tests came back negative, he said.
Dr Liang Wannian, China’s lead researcher in Wuhan, instead pushed the theory that the virus could have been imported on frozen meats or animal products from overseas and called for more study
The pair spoke at a joint press conference on Tuesday to present the findings of a month-long WHO probe in Wuhan, that has failed to find the origins of Covid
The WHO findings will be a PR coup for Beijing and leader Xi Jingping (pictured shaking hands with WHO leader Dr Tedros) with diplomats repeatedly jumping on any evidence that the pandemic which has blighted the world did not start in China
Who is on the WHO team investigating the origins of the coronavirus?
The WHO unveiled a 10-strong panel in November tasked with investigating the origins of the coronavirus, including with this month’s visit to China.
Thea Fischer, Denmark – Virologist and epidemiologist at University of Copenhagen and Nordsjaelland Hospital, previously worked at Denmark’s State Serum Institute. Expert in epidemic control and vaccinology
John Watson, UK – UK’s deputy chief medical officer from 2013 to 2017, after helping lead response to the 2009 swine flu pandemic. Also an honorary professor of epidemiology at London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine
Marion Koopmans, Netherlands – Dutch virologist who is head of the Erasmus Medical Centre department of viroscience in Rotterdam. Has written about spread of Covid-19 between humans and mink in Denmark
Dominic Dwyer, Australia – Australian microbiologist at Westmead Clinical School in Sydney who helped grow the virus for research last February. Wants to investigate role of laboratories in the coronavirus outbreak
Vladimir Dedkov, Russia – Epidemiologist and deputy director of research at the Institute Pasteur in Russia. Helped to diagnose Ebola patients during 2014 outbreak
Hung Nguyen, Vietnam – Vietnamese biologist based at Kenya’s International Livestock Research Institute who specialises in food safety risks in wet markets. Says the team will interview people from Wuhan food market
Fabian Leendertz, Germany – Microbiologist at Germany’s Robert Koch Institute who researches how viruses jump between animals and humans. Led researchers who tracked 2014 Ebola outbreak to a bat-filled tree in Guinea
Peter Daszak, UK/US – British zoologist who is president of the US-based EcoHealth Alliance and has come under fire over links to the Wuhan virology lab and China’s so-called ‘bat woman’ virologist Shi Zhengli
Farag El Moubasher, Qatar – Epidemiologist at Qatar’s ministry of public health who researches emerging diseases. Wrote a thesis on Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), a coronavirus which emerged from camels in 2012 and killed 858 people
Ken Maeda, Japan – Director of the National Institute of Infectious Diseases in Japan. Has publications to his name about animal diseases and bat coronaviruses
The WHO mission has been fraught from the start, first beset by delays and roadblocks thrown up by the Chinese government, and then later by claims that scientists were being fed little more than propaganda by Beijing authorities.
The experts spent one month in China, two weeks in quarantine, and then just two weeks on actual fieldwork.
Journalists were kept at arms’ length during the visit while no official itinerary was published – and what little information did leak out was not promising.
For example, it was revealed that scientists spent just an hour at the Huanan Seafood Market but found time to visit a propaganda exhibition celebrating China’s recovery from the pandemic.
They also appeared to spend several days inside their hotel receiving visits from various Chinese officials without going out into the city.
Deeper research was carried out at the Wuhan virology institute where they spent nearly four hours and said they met with Chinese scientists there including Shi Zhengli, one of China’s leading experts on bat coronaviruses and deputy director of the Wuhan lab.
Former US president Donald Trump repeated a controversial theory that a lab leak may have been the source of the pandemic.
Scientists at the laboratory conduct research on some of the world’s most dangerous diseases, including strains of bat coronaviruses similar to Covid-19.
Beijing is desperate to defang criticism of its handling of the chaotic early stages of the outbreak.
It has refocused attention at home – and abroad – on its handling of, and recovery from the outbreak.
Meanwhile an AP investigation has found that the Chinese government put limits on research into the outbreak and prevented scientists from speaking to reporters.
The WHO team’s mission is intended to be an initial step delving into the origins of the virus, which is believed to have originated in bats before being passed to humans through another species of wild animal, such as a pangolin or bamboo rat, which is considered an exotic delicacy by some in China.
Transmission through the trade in frozen products has emerged as a recent theory and has since become prevalent in China, and it appears WHO investigators also leaned towards the possibility.
Another member of the WHO team told The Associated Press late last week that they enjoyed a greater level of openness than they had anticipated, and that they were granted full access to all sites and personnel they requested.
That expert, zoologist Peter Daszak, said the team looked into issues including what the first cases were, the link with animals and what, if any, the role that imports of frozen food may have played – a theory that China has long put forward.
The visit by the WHO team took months to negotiate after China only agreed to it amid massive international pressure at the World Health Assembly meeting last May, and Beijing has continued to resist calls for a strictly independent investigation.
While China has weathered some localized resurgences of infection since getting the outbreak under control last year, life in Wuhan itself has largely returned to normal.
Summing up his time in China, Dr Embarek concluded: ‘It was fascinating to realise that these people are not holding very exciting clues.
‘When we talked to one of first cases, you immediately think they must have some very special habits, hiking in mountains, keeping wild pets at home, instead you realise they are very much like us – spending days on the internet, same jobs, activities and sports as many of us do.
‘Illustrating how complicated this work is, it is not possible to come up with all answers after a few weeks of study.
‘This needs to be done in a systematic way, building bit by bit to get answers, that is what we will continue to do with our Chinese colleagues.’
Chinese scientists and officials have been keen to point the finger of blame outside their own borders – variously suggesting that the virus could have originated in Bangladesh, the US, Greece, Australia, India, Italy, Czech Republic, Russia or Serbia
Multiple countries have uncovered evidence that the virus was circulating months earlier than originally thought. While Beijing has tried to insist this proves the virus originated elsewhere, most scientists still think China was the origin – raising the prospect that communist officials simply hid evidence of the early spread
How China’s feud with Australia has escalated
2019: Australian intelligence services conclude that China was responsible for a cyber-attack on Australia’s parliament and three largest political parties in the run-up to a May election.
April 2020: Australian PM Scott Morrison begins canvassing his fellow world leaders for an inquiry into the origins of the coronavirus pandemic. Britain and France are initially reluctant but more than 100 countries eventually back an investigation.
April 15: Morrison is one of the few leaders to voice sympathy with Donald Trump’s criticisms of the World Health Organization, which the US president accuses of bias towards China.
April 21: China’s embassy accuses Australian foreign minister Peter Dutton of ‘ignorance and bigotry’ and ‘parroting what those Americans have asserted’ after he called for China to be more transparent about the outbreak.
April 23: Australia’s agriculture minister David Littleproud calls for G20 nations to campaign against the ‘wet markets’ which are common in China and linked to the earliest coronavirus cases.
April 26: Chinese ambassador Cheng Jingye hints at a boycott of Australian wine and beef and says tourists and students might avoid Australia ‘while it’s not so friendly to China’. Canberra dismisses the threat and warns Beijing against ‘economic coercion’.
May 11: China suspends beef imports from four of Australia’s largest meat processors. These account for more than a third of Australia’s $1.1billion beef exports to China.
May 18: The World Health Organization backs a partial investigation into the pandemic, but China says it is a ‘joke’ for Australia to claim credit. The same day, China imposes an 80 per cent tariff on Australian barley. Australia says it may challenge this at the WTO.
May 21: China announces new rules for iron ore imports which could allow Australian imports – usually worth $41billion per year – to be singled out for extra bureaucratic checks.
June 5: Beijing warns tourists against travelling to Australia, alleging racism and violence against the Chinese in connection with Covid-19.
June 9: China’s Ministry of Education warns students to think carefully about studying in Australia, similarly citing alleged racist incidents.
June 19: Australia says it is under cyber-attack from a foreign state which government sources say is believed to be China. The attack has been targeting industry, schools, hospitals and government officials, Morrison says.
July 9: Australia suspends extradition treaty with Hong Kong and offers to extend the visas of 10,000 Hong Kongers who are already in Australia over China’s national security law which effectively bans protest.
August 18: China launches 12-month anti-dumping investigation into wines imported from Australia in a major threat to the $6billion industry.
August 26: Prime Minster Scott Morrison announces he will legislate to stop states and territories signing deals with foreign powers that go against Australia’s foreign policy. Analysts said it is aimed at China.
October 13: Trade Minister Simon Birmingham says he’s investigating reports that Chinese customs officials have informally told state-owned steelmakers and power plants to stop Aussie coal, leaving it in ships off-shore.
November 2: Agriculture Minister David Littleproud reveals China is holding up Aussie lobster imports by checking them for minerals.
November 3: Barley, sugar, red wine, logs, coal, lobster and copper imports from Australia unofficially banned under a directive from the government, according to reports.
November 18: China releases bizarre dossier of 14 grievances with Australia.
November 27: Australian coal exports to China have dropped 96 per cent in the first three weeks of November as 82 ships laden with 8.8million tonnes of coal are left floating off Chinese ports where they have been denied entry.
November 28: Beijing imposed a 212 per cent tariff on Australia’s $1.2 billion wine exports, claiming they were being ‘dumped’ or sold at below-cost. The claim is denied by both Australia and Chinese importers.
November 30: Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Lijian Zhao posted a doctored image showing a grinning Australian soldier holding a knife to the throat of an Afghan child. The move outraged Australians.
December 12: Australian coal is added to a Chinese blacklist.
December 24: China suspends imports of Australian timber from NSW and WA after local customs officers say they found pests in the cargo.
January 11, 2021: Australia blocks $300million construction deal that would have seen state-owned China State Construction Engineering Corporation takeover Probuild. The bid was blacked over national security concerns.