BEIJING – A Japanese expert from the World Health Organization, who visited Wuhan earlier this month, has voiced skepticism about China’s insistence that the novel coronavirus originally entered that country from abroad through cold-chain food distribution.
In a recent interview, Ken Maeda, a veterinary microbiologist at Japan’s National Institute of Infectious Diseases, also emphasized the importance of additional investigation into key sites at the initial epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The possibility is not so high” that the virus rode into Wuhan on frozen-food packages as China claims, said Maeda, who was one of the members of the WHO team tasked with tracing the origins of the virus in the city along with Chinese experts.
There was a “perception gap” between the WHO group and its Chinese counterparts, Maeda said, although he added that China “did not have an intention to cover up” information and that it had provided existing data in an appropriate manner.
At a news conference on Feb. 9 held together with the WHO team after their joint probe, Chinese representatives said that cold-chain products should be included as an investigation item.
After quarantining for two weeks, the WHO experts began a full-fledged probe in late January.
In February, they visited a research laboratory, from which the new virus was rumored to have accidentally escaped, after conducting a one-hour investigation into a market where many people were confirmed to have been infected in the early days of the outbreak.
The WHO group wanted to gauge how live mammals had been traded at the market, and whether they may have transmitted the virus to humans, but China said that there had been no such animals there.
Early last year, China had indicated that illegal trade of wildlife at the market could have been a means by which the virus had spread.
The Wuhan market, in which wild animals such as bats and snakes had been traded alongside seafood, has been closed since January 2020 and has been already sanitized thoroughly by the authorities.
Maeda said the WHO team suspects that “there were” live mammals there, adding that the group asked China to disclose information about trading at the market but failed to obtain any testimony from those who had worked and done business there.
“We still have a lot of things we want to know and there remain many challenges,” Maeda said.
As a result of the probe, the WHO team rejected a theory, advanced by the administration of former U.S. President Donald Trump, that the virus had spread from the Wuhan Institute of Virology.
The group, however, was not able to clarify how the outbreak erupted in Wuhan in late 2019 or to identify how bats, believed to be the main natural host of the virus, had passed it on via other animals to humans, analysts say.
So far, the novel coronavirus, first detected in the central Chinese city, has infected more than 111 million people and killed over 2.4 million worldwide, according to a tally by Johns Hopkins University.
The WHO had earlier sent a small team of experts to China for a preliminary investigation in July last year, but they did not visit the market or the laboratory in Wuhan.
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