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The Origins Of COVID-19? WHO Report Points To A Bat After All


Tomorrow the World Health Organization is expected to release a long-awaited report about its investigation into the origin of the COVID-19 pandemic. The goal was to try to pinpoint where and how the outbreak started. To tell us about what's in that report, we're joined by global health correspondent Michaeleen Doucleff.

Hi there.


SHAPIRO: To start with, tell us about who did this investigation and how they looked into the origins of this disease.

DOUCLEFF: Yeah. The team included scientists from all over the world - about 19 - but also scientists inside China and Chinese officials. And they had about two weeks on the ground in Wuhan. That's the city where the first cases were detected. And they were there to try to find new information about these - the early days of the outbreak. They talked to the first known patients, visited the Huanan Seafood Market, where an early outbreak occurred. And they interviewed scientists at the Wuhan Institute of Virology who studied bat coronaviruses.

SHAPIRO: Now, you got some early insight into what the report found. Tell us what's going to be in it.

DOUCLEFF: Yeah. The report will say that the pandemic likely began when a bat virus spilled over into another animal and then into people, and we've known that for a while. But the report will say that this spillover did not happen at the Huanan Seafood Market in Wuhan. This had been the thinking since some of the earliest cases were found there, but - now, Ari, this is huge. The team found that COVID was already circulating in Wuhan when a big outbreak occurred at the market in late 2019. Linfa Wang is a virologist at Duke-NUS Medical School. He was part of the investigation, and he says now the big question is, how did the virus get to Wuhan?

LINFA WANG: So, three possibilities. The virus brought to Wuhan by a human, by animal or by frozen food. And I would rank the frozen food as No. 3 - not impossible but low probability.

DOUCLEFF: The report will also call for investigation into farms in southern China that breed exotic wildlife. These farms are a potential source of that first spillover, and the Chinese government abruptly closed these farms after the pandemic began. Finally, Ari, the report will also say that it's extremely unlikely that the virus leaked from the Wuhan Institute of Virology - not impossible but unlikely.

SHAPIRO: In a way, it sounds like this raises more questions than it answers. If the virus didn't originate at that seafood market and it's unlikely that it originated in a lab - which is a theory that some, including former CDC director Robert Redfield, floated - I mean, tell us more about where this leaves us.

DOUCLEFF: Well, you know, I mean, there's been some criticism of the WHO with this report. You know, there's concern that WHO is underplaying and not fully pursuing this lab leak theory because they are catering to the Chinese government. But one of the members of the WHO team, Peter Daszak - he's a disease ecologist. He pointed out that the members of this investigation are not actually working for WHO. They are independent.

PETER DASZAK: Our voices are independent. If there was political interference with what we're trying to say or someone removed a section that we disagreed with, no, we would push back. And if it didn't go back in, we would have stepped to one side and said, we cannot sign off on this, and we're going to have to release our own report.

DOUCLEFF: Daszak notes that the team unanimously agrees on the main conclusion of the report, and that's that it came from a bat to an animal and then somehow made its way to Wuhan.

SHAPIRO: NPR's Michaeleen Doucleff, thank you.

DOUCLEFF: Thank you, Ari. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michaeleen Doucleff, PhD, is a correspondent for NPR's Science Desk. For nearly a decade, she has been reporting for the radio and the web for NPR's global health outlet, Goats and Soda. Doucleff focuses on disease outbreaks, cross-cultural parenting, and women and children's health.