During a Friday press conference, World Health Organization (WHO) executive director Dr. Michael Ryan said the first instances of COVID-19 coronavirus infections were observed in the Chinese city of Wuhan, and that claims the COVID-19 pandemic originated outside China are “highly speculative.”
“I think it’s highly speculative for us to say that the diseases did not emerge in China. What we do know is the first clusters of human cases that were detected were in Wuhan China” Ryan said. “There was a massive response to contain that disease there and we look forward to working with our Chinese scientific colleagues to understand better the origins of the virus within China or beyond China, wherever that leads.”
Ryan’s comments came in response to a question from a China Central Television (CCTV) reporter. The reporter asked Ryan about signs the COVID-19 coronavirus originated outside of China.
“For example, the Italian researchers found the virus in samples from last September. Does that mean that the case zero or several cases zero could be outside of Wuhan, outside of China and is there a possibility that the virus already circulated in humans outside of China before the outbreak in Wuhan but without being noticed?” the CCTV reporter asked.
In his response, Ryan said, “Yes, I think we need to be careful with our speculation here. There are lots of different observations that have occurred around the world but the idea that humans can infect minks and minks can infect humans is very clear but there’s no evidence that mammals in a European environment were the source of this disease originally for humans or outside China.”
China has repeatedly claimed COVID-19 originated outside of China. In March, a Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson shared unfounded claims the virus originated in the U.S. and was brought to Wuhan by U.S. soldiers. On Sunday, the Chinese state-run media outlet Global Times reported on an as-yet-unpublished study titled “The Early Cryptic Transmission and Evolution of SARS-CoV-2 in Human Hosts” which Global Times reported suggests COVID-19 originated in the Indian subcontinent.
Describing the WHO’s perspective on evaluating the origin of COVID-19, Ryan said researchers in Wuhan were the first to discover “a cluster of unusual, atypical pneumonia” and “From that perspective that was the event which triggered the response and the investigation.”
Ryan went on to say “the question then is what was the original origin of the virus and nobody has that answer.”
Ryan said the WHO is currently involved in a phase-one study of COVID-19’s origins and said there’s a series of phase-two studies to follow-up on the findings of the first phase.
“After that, the evidence should take us where we need to go but to speculate on where the virus emerged precisely without starting where the human disease emerged for us doesn’t represent the best way forward,” Ryan said.
Following Ryan’s comments, Coronavirus researcher Dr. Peter Ben Embarek said, “We need to push back our understanding of what happened before the detection of the initial cases. We have to make the link between that event and the original animal that was the source of this virus.”
Embarak added, “We know that the virus belongs to a group of viruses that have their natural niche in bats, in certain families of bats but between bats and the event in Wuhan we have a big gap and that’s the purpose of all these studies, to fill that gap and understand what happened between these two events and where it happened. But for the time being, we have to start where we have the first solid clues and these are the first detected human cases in Wuhan in late 2019.”
President Donald Trump has criticized the WHO’s initial response to the COVID-19 outbreak and the organization’s connections with China. In May, Trump tweeted laying out a timeline of apparent delays from the WHO relaying information about the severity of the COVID-19 outbreak in China. In July, Trump formally initiated the process to withdraw the U.S. from participation in the WHO.