On March 12, China’s foreign ministry organized a press briefing for European envoys in Beijing. The subject: A China-World Health Organization (WHO) investigation into the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Liang Wannian, an expert with China’s Health Commission and one of the Chinese members of the joint investigation team, addressed those in attendance.
Citing the joint investigation team’s findings, Liang underlined the need to widen the net on the potential origins of the coronavirus, both geographically and biologically.
Liang reaffirmed that many early human-to-human novel coronavirus transmissions were traced to the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market in Wuhan.
However, although most experts believe that SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes the disease COVID-19, originated in bats, Liang said there is no direct evidence that bats or pangolins were the original host. He added that other species of animals should be investigated.
Liang also ranked the potential vectors through which the virus was introduced to humans in order of likelihood.
China's state-run Xinhua News Agency reported Liang’s summation as follows:
“The COVID-19 virus is ‘the most likely’ to be introduced through an intermediary host species, ‘likely' to be introduced through direct transmission or cold-chain food, and 'extremely unlikely’ to be introduced through a laboratory incident, according to the joint study.”
According to Liang, the joint China-WHO investigation, whose findings have not yet been publicly released, recommends expanding the search for earlier COVID-19 cases beyond “the first” reported case in Wuhan on December 8, 2019, to a “wider range around the globe.”
Wu Xiangning, a social science assistant professor at the University of Macau, told the Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post the briefing was intended to counter criticism in Europe of the WHO’s purported pro-Chinese bias and China’s “ineffective control measures for Covid-19, both at the beginning and a year after the first outbreak.”
Critics have accused the WHO of giving China “excessive” and “misleading” praise for its “openness” in handling the pandemic despite allegations Beijing has not been transparent. Those allegations even prompted former President Donald Trump to announce the U.S. was leaving the WHO, although President Joe Biden reversed that decision.
Polygraph.info reached out to the WHO to determine if Liang’s latest statements conform with their interpretation of the joint investigation team’s findings. The WHO had not responded at the time of publication.
The actual WHO investigative findings are expected to be released in the next two weeks. Experts estimate the origins of the virus will be discovered “within the next few years.” That leaves lots of time for speculation.
Chinese state media have repeatedly promoted narratives that the virus did not originate in Wuhan, but rather was brought into the country through imported frozen seafood or meat products.
Many of Liang’s latest statements appear to be repackaged from the WHO press briefing held in Wuhan on February 9, at the conclusion of the WHO team’s 27-day visit.
During that press conference, Liang said “the global origin-tracing work” should not “be bound to any location and may evolve geographically as evidence is generated and science-based hypotheses evolve.”
He said it was necessary to consider “additional species of animals” as “potential reservoirs” for the virus, while raising “the possibility of transmission through the trade of frozen cold-chain products.” He also said it is “highly unlikely” the virus originated in a lab.
Following the February 9 press conference, some scientists said it was unclear what evidence had led Liang and others to those conclusions.
Other statements made at that press conference have subsequently been revisited.
For example, Peter Ben Embarek, the food scientist who led the WHO team in Wuhan, initially did not challenge Liang’s theory that the virus was imported to Wuhan via frozen foods.
However, he later said such a transmission would be a “very, very rare event” that could only have occurred after the SARS-CoV-2 virus had become widespread.
In November 2020, The Associated Press quoted the WHO as saying that cases of live viruses being found on packaging appeared to be “rare and isolated.” The WHO added that while viruses can “survive a long time under cold storage conditions,” there is no evidence of people contracting COVID-19 from consuming food, the AP reported.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control also said there is no evidence to suggest that handling food or consuming food is associated with contracting COVID-19.
Most scientists have excluded the possibility the virus might have been spread on tainted frozen food packaging.
However, Marion Koopmans, who was also on the WHO-led team, told The Associated Press: “We cannot completely rule it out.”
Still, as China looks to widen the potential geographical origin of the virus, Peter Daszak, a disease ecologist with EcoHealth Alliance and a member of the WHO delegation, told NPR that wildlife farms in southern China are the most likely source of the pandemic.
He said evidence had shown that these farms, which the government shut down in February 2020, were supplying vendors at the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market.
Linfa Wang, a virologist who studies bat viruses at Duke-NUS Medical School in Singapore and a member of the WHO investigative team, told NPR there was “massive” viral transmission occurring at the market.
"In the live animal section, they had many positive samples," Wang said. "They even have two samples from which they could isolate live virus.”
Daszak said authorities closed that supply-chain pathway down because it was likely a route for the virus to spread to Wuhan. “And when the WHO report comes out ... we believe it's the most likely pathway too,” he added.
China previously faced allegations that its scientists refused to share raw data on the initial coronavirus outbreak with WHO investigators. That included blood sample data, which potentially could clarify how widely the virus circulated in China in 2019.
Two members of the WHO team disputed those allegations.