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WHO: China Likely Misrepresented Time Of Initial Coronavirus Outbreak

Photo by HECTOR RETAMAL/AFP via Getty Images)

Michael Ginsberg General Assignment Reporter
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The World Health Organization found signs that the coronavirus appeared in the Chinese population earlier than the Chinese government claimed.

Peter Ben Embarek, WHO’s lead investigator for COVID-19, told CNN that his group has been able to sequence 13 different strains of the coronavirus that were circulating in Wuhan in December 2019. The large number of strains present in Wuhan at the time means that “it is likely that the virus was circulating for a while longer than that month alone,” virologist Edward Holmes of the University of Sydney, Australia, told CNN.

Viruses mutate as they are spread between hosts, according to the CNN report. Most mutations do not impact viral spread, according to the Cleveland Clinic. However, some mutations allow the virus to spread more quickly between hosts. Over time, those mutations can become separate strains, although that process takes time and a large viral population. Ben Embarek declined to speculate about how long the coronavirus would have taken to mutate into 13 separate strains.

China claimed that it detected its first COVID-19 case in Dec. 2019. It also said that the virus could not be spread among humans. China’s previous claims about the virus and the country’s political demands hung over the work the WHO team did, Ben Embarek has admitted.

“Politics was always in the room with us on the other side of the table. We had anywhere between 30 and 60 Chinese colleagues, and a large number of them were not scientists, not from the public health sector,” he said in an interview with Science magazine. Chinese government officials have suggested that the United States introduced the coronavirus. (RELATED: Twitter Slaps Misinformation Label On Chinese Spox’s Tweets Claiming US Army Started Virus)

China has repeatedly denied the so-called “lab leak” hypothesis, which suggests that the coronavirus escaped from the Wuhan Institute of Virology. The Wuhan Institute of Virology was conducting research on similar viruses at about the time that COVID-19 appeared in the Wuhan population.

WHO Director-General Tedros Ghebreyesus on Feb. 11 walked back comments from Ben Embarek suggesting that the lab leak hypothesis was no longer being considered. “All hypotheses remain open and require further study,” he said.