'All available evidence' suggests COVID-19 had animal origin and wasn't produced in lab — WHO

The World Health Organization (WHO) says that all available evidence suggests the novel coronavirus originated in animals in China late last year and was not manipulated or produced in a laboratory.

It remains unclear how virus jumped species barrier to humans, spokesperson says

A spokesperson for the World Health Organization, led by Tedros Ghebreyesus, said Tuesday it's not still clear how the novel coronavirus had jumped the species barrier from animal to humans. (Salvatore Di Nolfi/Keystone via AP)

The World Health Organization (WHO) said on Tuesday that all available evidence suggests the novel coronavirus originated in animals in China late last year and was not manipulated or produced in a laboratory.

U.S. President Donald Trump said last week that his government was trying to determine whether the virus emanated from a lab in the central Chinese city of Wuhan, where the coronavirus pandemic emerged in December.

"All available evidence suggests the virus has an animal origin and is not manipulated or constructed in a lab or somewhere else," WHO spokesperson Fadela Chaib told a Geneva news briefing. "It is probable, likely, that the virus is of animal origin."

It was not clear, Chaib added, how the virus had jumped the species barrier to humans but there had "certainly" been an intermediate animal host. "It most likely has its ecological reservoir in bats but how the virus came from bats to humans is still to be seen and discovered."

She did not respond to a request to elaborate on whether it was possible the virus may have inadvertently escaped from a lab. The Wuhan Institute of Virology has dismissed rumours both that it synthesized the virus or allowed it to escape.

Wuhan lab partner France sees no evidence

France said last week there was no evidence so far of a link between the new coronavirus and the work of the P4 research laboratory in Wuhan

"We would like to make it clear that there is to this day no factual evidence corroborating the information recently circulating in the United States press that establishes a link between the origins of COVID-19 and the work of the P4 laboratory of Wuhan, China," an official at President Emmanuel Macron's office said on April 17.

France signed an agreement with China in 2004 to establish a research lab on infectious diseases of biosafety level 4, the highest level, in Wuhan. 

Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, has said U.S. intelligence indicates that the coronavirus likely occurred naturally, as opposed to being created in a laboratory in China, but there is no certainty either way. 

The Washington Post reported last week that national security officials in the Trump administration have long suspected research facilities in Wuhan to be the source of the novel coronavirus outbreak.  

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But the U.S. and China — in conflict on issues ranging from trade, the global expansion of Huawei's 5G technology, the status of Taiwan and China's muscular military presence in the South China Sea — have traded unsubstantiated allegations.

For example, a Beijing official in the country's foreign ministry last month made the claim that the U.S. Army brought the virus to China.

Meanwhile, Chaib was also asked about the impact of Trump's decision last week to suspend funding to the UN agency over its handling of the coronavirus pandemic.

"We are still assessing the situation about the announcement by President Trump … and we will assess the situation and we will work with our partners to fill any gaps," she said.

"It is very important to continue what we are doing not only for COVID but for many, many, many, many other health programs," Chaib added, referring to action against polio, HIV and malaria among other diseases.

She said that the WHO was 81 per cent funded for the next two years as of the end of March, referring to its $4.8 billion biennial budget. The United States is the Geneva-based agency's biggest donor. Other big contributors are the Gates Foundation and Britain.

With files from CBC News