WHO Official Walks Back On China Comments About Imported Frozen Foods As Possible Source Of 2019 Wuhan SARS-CoV2 Outbreak
Chinese and WHO-International team present findings Tuesday in Wuhan on joint study of the SARS-CoV2 virus origins  in Wuhan briefing, 9 February. Since then, the narratives have diverged significantly.

The WHO head of the international expert mission to China to investigate the origins of the SARS-CoV2 virus, told a press briefing Thursday that the international expert group is not seriously considering the Chinese theory that the virus outbreak in Wuhan, first infected Wuhan residents through imported frozen foods. 

The theory that imported frozen foods first brought the virus to Wuhan from another country -was promoted by the head of the Chinese expert team, Dr Liang Wannian, appearing on the stage with Ben Embarek, at a joint press conference at the close of the joint WHO-China mission on 9 February – and undisputed by the WHO official at the time

That theory has since been discounted by other international experts that participated in the mission as both unlikely – and part of a broader propaganda package that Beijing is trying to sell abroad – to deflect international blame for the pandemic. 

Speaking about the discrepancies in the Chinese, WHO and international team statements for the first time, Ben Embarek discounted the possibility that the Wuhan virus outbreak had been sparked by contaminated frozen foods imported from abroad – calling such transmission a  “very, very rare event” that could only occur after the SARS-CoV-2 virus was really widespread. 

However, Ben Embarek did say that the investigative team is keen to get more data from China about whether wild animals that are farmed domestically in China – and sold on the Wuhan markets in both fresh and frozen forms  – could have been the original source of the first animal-to-human virus leap, which then spread more widely among Wuhan residents in late 2019.   

Paving Over Differences In Chinese and WHO/International Narrative 
Dr Peter Benembarek, WHO head of the SARS-CoV2 investigative team mission to Wuhan, China

In his comments at the Thursday briefing, Ben Embarek tried to paper over the obvious differences in the Chinese and international narratives. 

“We are talking about two very different situations,” Ben Embarek said at the briefing. “The first one is the possibility of reintroduction of the virus, through the frozen food chain, and through imported products back into China, where the virus has been more or less eliminated,…and where we know that there are multiple outbreaks in food factories in countries where the virus is circulated. 

“So that’s one line of interest, particularly for China and other countries in a similar situation. It’s a very very rare event, even China, through their extensives search for positive contaminated products have found only a very few positive cases.”

The question of the first Wuhan cases in 2019, he added, “is a very different situation at that time, the virus was not widely circulating in the world. There were no large outbreaks in food factories around the world. And therefore, the hypothesis, the idea of importing the virus to China to that food is not something that we’re looking at there.” 

Ben Embarek also stressed that WHO and International expert team members would still like to get further information about possible infection chains in the domestic wild food products that were arriving in the market.

Cautious WHO Statements In Wuhan Contrast With Bolster Media Remarks in Geneva  – About Virus Origins and Earlier Spread

Ben Embarek’s remarks about the team’s findings since leaving China have signalled a striking change in tone and pitch by the WHO leadership about the investigation. 

At the Wuhan press conference Embarek also said that the international investigators had not found any concrete evidence that the SARS-CoV-2 virus was circulating in Wuhan prior to December 2019 – another part of the Chinese official narrative. 

However in an interview Tuesday, Ben Embarek told CNN that the WHO-international team of investigators believed that the December 2019 outbreak in Wuhan, was much wider than previously thought – suggesting it also began earlier as well. .  

 “The virus was circulating widely in Wuhan in December, which is a new finding,” he said.

Other international team members have since complained bitterly that politics took precedence over science on key aspects of the mission,- and that Chinese authorities won’t turn over critical patient data that would allow the team to ascertain the breadth of the virus circulation in December 2019, as well as earlier. 

Ben Embarek has since admitted that the WHO-international team is also still seeking Chinese government permission to access to some 200,000 samples from Wuhan’s blood donor bank, which – if tested for virus antigens – could shed far greater light on the true prevalence of the virus in that period. 

“There is about 200,000 samples available there that are now secured and could be used for a new set of studies,” Ben Embarek told CNN. “It would be fantastic if we could [work] with that.”  Chinese authorities have, however resisted sharing that data, claiming that they are only to be used for litigation purposes.  “There is no mechanism to allow for routine studies with that kind of sample.”  

Over a Dozen SARS-CoV2 Virus Strains In Circulation in Wuhan In December, 2019

During its Wuhan visit, the international team documented that there were already over a dozen strains of the SARS-CoV2 virus circulating in Wuhan in December – some linked to local animal markets and some now.  And that is further testimony to its wider spread – Ben Embarek also acknolwedged in the CNN interview. 

And the team also had a chance to speak to the first patient Chinese officials said had been infected, an office worker in his 40s, with no travel history of note, whose infection was reported  on December 8. 

During the meetings with WHO and international colleagues, Chinese scientists reported that there had been only 174 COVID-19 cases reported throughout Wuhan in December 2019.  However, Ben Embarek stressed this was likely to be only the tip of the iceberg – since so many COVID-19 cases are mild or asymptomatic and thus go unreported. 

“We haven’t done any modeling of that since,” he said. “But we know …in big ballpark figures… out of the infected population, about 15% end up as severe cases, and the vast majority are mild cases.”

Official Chinese Statements Peddle Frozen Food Theory 

The joint WHO-Chinese experts present the frozen food theory for the emergence of SARS-CoV2 in Wuhan a the 9 February press conference wrapping up the WHO -International expert mission.

For the past several months, official Chinese statements have sought to shift the narrative around the virus origins elsewhere – suggesting at different times that it emerged from an infection at a military base, or from an animal source in South East Asia. 

But the favorite theory to be peddled has been that the virus arrived in Wuhan on frozen food packaging from imported products. “All available evidence suggests that (the coronavirus) did not start in central China’s Wuhan, but may come into China through imported frozen food products and their packaging,” stated The People’s Daily in an article in December 2020, 

At the joint WHO-China press conference earlier this month, Dr Liang Wannian, head of the Chinese expert panel on COVID-19, echoed that narrative once again, asserting that: “studies have shown that the virus can survive for a long time not only at low temperatures, but also at refrigerator temperature, indicating that it can be carried long distances on culturing products.” 

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Image Credits: @PeterDaszak, WHO.

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