Controversy surrounds WHO findings into the Covid-19 pandemic

World Health Organisation to pursue ‘frozen food’ theory pushed by China as Wuhan inquiry throws up more questions than answers

A World Health Organisation investigation into the origins of the Covid-19 crisis has thrown up more questions than answers.

Lingering concerns that SARS-CoV-2 leaked from the Wuhan Institute of Virology have been dismissed after the nearly month-long inquiry in the Chinese city of Wuhan.

Instead, Beijing is still pushing the theory that the virus could have been transmitted through imported frozen food. The WHO appears to be taking it seriously.

Peter Ben Embarek, who led the independent group of 14 scientists, touched on that scenario when he talked about the spread of Covid-19 through “host species.”

“The possible path from whatever original animal species all the way through to the Huanan Seafood Market could have taken a very long and convoluted path involving movements across borders,” Embarek told a nearly three-hour media briefing at the Hilton Optics Valley Hotel in Wuhan on Tuesday.

“We know the virus can survive in conditions that are found in these cold, frozen environments, but we don’t really understand if the virus can transmit to humans [or under which conditions],” Embarek said.

The WHO team visited key sites including the Huanan Seafood Market in the city where the first cluster of infections were reported. They also went to the Wuhan Institute of Virology, a laboratory involved in coronavirus research. 

“There is no indication of [Covid-19] in the population before December 2019,” Liang Wannian, a senior official at China’s National Health Commission and part of the investigation team, said at the media conference.

“While some of the early cases had an association with the Huanan Seafood Market, others were associated with other markets and others had no association with markets at all,” he added.

The facts:

  • The outbreak leading to the Covid-19 pandemic first officially surfaced in Wuhan at the end of 2019.
  • Beijing initially suppressed any reporting of the disease in December of that year.
  • Whistleblower Li Wenliang and other doctors were silenced before China admitted the scale of the problem.
  • Up to 57 million people in Hubei province, including Wuhan, were locked down during Chinese New Year.
  • The late response failed to prevent the virus from spreading across the planet within months.
  • So far, nearly 107 million people have been infected worldwide while the death toll stands close to 2.4 million.

What was said: “Did we change the picture dramatically compared to what we had before? I don’t think so. Did we improve our understanding and add details? Absolutely,” Embarek, of the WHO team, said.

Reaction to the news: “The findings, which mark the end of the WHO’s fact-finding mission, amount to an almost full backing of Beijing’s explanations for the source of the pandemic and will be a PR coup for the ruling Communist Party, which has repeatedly tried to pin the blame outside its borders,” the London-based Daily Mail said online.

China Factor comment: It has taken more than a year for a WHO team to visit Wuhan. During that time, China has pushed an alternative narrative that Covid-19 originated from outside the country with its imported “frozen food” theory. There is still a lack of hard evidence to back this up. Instead, there has been a raft of reports in China’s state-run media, piling pressure on the WHO. At the same time, the theory has been disputed by the United States and other leading democracies.