A member of the World Health Organization-led team searching for clues to the origins of COVID-19 in the central Chinese city of Wuhan said work was needed to try to trace genetic elements of the virus in bat caves. Peter Daszak, a zoologist and animal disease expert, said the team in Wuhan had been receiving new information about how the virus, first identified in the city in late 2019, led to a pandemic. He did not elaborate but said there was no evidence to suggest it emerged from a lab.
The origin of the coronavirus has become highly politicised following accusations, especially by the United States, that China was not transparent in its early handling of the outbreak. Beijing has pushed the idea that the virus originated elsewhere. Daszak was involved in research into the origins of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) in 2002-2003, tracing its roots to bats living in a cave in southwest Yunnan province. It is unclear whether China is currently sampling its many bat caves, but viruses similar to SARS-CoV-2 had previously been found in the southwest province of Yunnan. He said the team in Wuhan had been receiving new information about how the virus led to a pandemic, but did not elaborate. “I’m seeing a picture coming through of some of the scenarios looking more plausible than before,” he said.
One scenario being scrutinised more closely by the team is the possibility that the virus could have been circulating long before it was first identified in Wuhan. The investigators have visited hospitals, research facilities and the seafood market where the first outbreak was identified, although their contacts in Wuhan are limited to visits organised by their Chinese hosts.