The team of experts investigating the origins of COVID-19 in China have issued a warning over possible transmission of the virus through frozen food products.
In a dramatic press briefing during which the team said there was no evidence linking the coronavirus to a lab leak or bats, they confirmed that the coronavirus could have originated in frozen meat.
Dr Peter Ben Embarek, the World Health Organisation’s food safety and animal disease specialist and chair of the investigation team, said that “cold chain” transmission through the transport of frozen goods was possible and warranted further investigation.
During Tuesday night’s press briefing in Wuhan, Dr Embarek said COVID-19 samples identified in bats and pangolins were not “sufficiently similar” to SARS-CoV-2 to suggest a direct link.
But he said that an intermediary host species was “the most likely pathway” for transmission to humans, with the panel observing that animals including minks and cats were likely to serve as reservoirs.
Dr Embarek said the team had tried to find what other animals were introduced to the Huanan seafood market in Wuhan that could have introduced the coronavirus and “a lot of work needs to be done” in this area.
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This includes products that were moving in and out of the market, those produced at the time and/or those that are still available. “The market was dealing primarily with frozen animal products and mainly seafood but there were also vendors selling products from domesticated wildlife and imported products,” he said.
“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,” he said.
Professor Liang Wannian, head of the China team, told reporters the reservoir hosts still need to be identified. He said studies showed the virus “can be carried long-distance on cold chain products”.
“There is the potential to continue to follow this lead and animals that were supplied to the market in frozen and other semi-processed or raw form.”
Professor Marion Koopmans, a Dutch virologist and member of the WHO team, said that some animals thought to be susceptible to COVID-19 — including rabbits, ferret-badgers and bamboo rats — were present at the Huanan wet market.
China has repeatedly pushed the idea that the virus can be transmitted by frozen food and has regularly announced findings of COVID-19 traces on imported food packaging, including chicken wings from Brazil, squid from Russia, shrimp from Ecuador, pork from Germany and salmon from Norway.
“More and more evidence suggests that the frozen seafood or meat products probably spread the virus from countries with the epidemic into our country,” Chinese epidemiologist Wu Zunyou said in a recent interview posted on a government website, The New York Times reported.
China’s state tabloid the Global Times said in December the Wuhan market used to sell “imported cold-chain seafood, such as king crab and arctic shellfish, as well as meat products from Brazil and Germany”.
“The city also imported Australian steak, Chilean cherries and Ecuadorean seafood before 2019, according to the information from the website of the city’s commerce bureau,” the article added.
On January 31, the tabloid argued that “the possibility that the coronavirus was passed on from cold-chain products into Wuhan, or more specifically, to the Huanan wet market … cannot be ruled out”.
Beijing has been working hard to deflect the attacks on China as the suspected origin of the pandemic, with the earliest cases detected in the country in December 2019. The WHO team confirmed it was “extremely unlikely” that the virus originated from a lab, a theory circulated by the US administration and former President Donald Trump.
It said there was evidence of wider circulation of the virus back in December 2019 (but no earlier), not only at the Huanan wet market but at other Chinese markets and in some cases with no association to any market at all.
This could potentially confirm recent claims from the Global Times that suggested the seafood market was not the source of the outbreak.
Prof Liang said some of the Huanan market cases had identical genomes, suggesting they are part of a cluster, but he said further research was needed to determine the role played by cold chain food products in transmission.
While Beijing is now pursuing the imports theory, Chinese officials previously identified wild animals sold at the market as a likely source of the outbreak and clamped down on the exotic animal trade in response.
A price list issued by a market seller and circulated online showed an array of exotic wildlife available including civets, snakes and even live wolf pups.
— With wires