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WHO expert 'cannot rule out' possibility that Covid 'escaped' from controversial Wuhan lab

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Professor John Watson said that the Wuhan laboratory’s role in the origin of COVID-19 could “not be ruled out”. He said the possibility of the coronavirus pandemic starting with a leak from the Chinese lab in Wuhan “is still on the table”. The expert was among those that the World Health Organisation recently sent to China to investigate the origins of coronavirus.

Speaking to Andrew Marr on the BBC, Professor Watson, who visited the lab in question, said: “All four hypotheses remain on the table.”

Mr Marr followed up: “So the hypothesis that this escaped from one of the two big Wuhan research institutes and laboratories is not ruled out?”

The WHO expert responded: “It is not ruled, that is correct.”

Professor Watson added that the WHO fact-finding team spoke to the Wuhan scientists at the lab and were “very open that it was being suggested about the possibility of a leak and we questioned the safety processes in the lab”. 

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He added: “It is a hypothesis that remains on the table and further work could be done on it.”

Professor Watson stated that the most likely source remained an “animal reservoir somewhere and that the infection got to humans, probably, through an intermediate host”.

Liang Wannian, an expert with China’s National Health Commission, said pangolins were potential candidates but other animals such as mink and even cats may also be reservoirs.

Other hypotheses include that a single person was exposed to SARS-CoV-2 through direct contact with the host species, the horseshoe bat.

Another theory is that COVID-19 was transmitted via cold chain products, understood to imported frozen food.

Peter Ben Embarek, the WHO’s leading animal disease expert, suggested that the lab leak theory was “very unlikely”.

Later on the BBC programme, foreign minister Dominic Raab said he shared concerns about the level of access given to the WHO Covid-19 fact-finding mission to China. 

It comes as the White House warned that it held “deep concerns” that Beijing may have interfered with WHO’s investigation into the origins of Covid.

On Saturday, the US called on China to make available data from the earliest days of the outbreak, saying it had “deep concerns” about the way the findings of the WHO’s Covid-19 report were communicated.

When pressed on the US reaction, Mr Raab told Andrew Marr: “We do share concerns that they get full cooperation and they get the answers they need, and so we’ll be pushing for it to have full access, get all the data it needs to be able to answer the questions that I think most people want to hear answered around the outbreak.”

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Earlier this week, the WHO’s director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus clashed with the WHO-led mission in China, which initially ruled out a lab leak. 

In a press briefing on Friday, the WHO director-general said: “Some questions have been raised as to whether some hypotheses have been discarded.

“Having spoken with some members of the team, I wish to confirm that all hypotheses remain open and require further analysis and study.”

Last year, former US President Donald Trump initially sparked controversy after he voiced his belief that the virus may have escaped from a lab in Wuhan.

China has vehemently denied this and insisted the Wuhan Institute of Virology was not studying any related viruses.

However, last night it emerged that the Wuhan lab was awarded a patent for cages to hold live bats for testing just months before the virus started spreading.

A patent application from June 2018 details “bat rearing cages” which would be “capable of healthy growth and breeding under artificial conditions”. 

The patent also discusses cross-species transmission of SARS- CoV from bat to humans and other animals, saying: “Bats infected with the virus naturally or artificially have no obvious clinical symptoms, and the mechanism is unknown”. 



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