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A team of experts from the WHO and China have spent four weeks in Wuhan looking into the origins of the virus. They insisted it is “extremely unlikely” that Covid-19 was leaked from a laboratory after claims that the Wuhan Institute of Virology could be to blame.

The experts told a press conference coronavirus “may have originated from zoonotic transmission”, meaning it passed from animals to humans.

Early findings indicate that the virus was introduced to humans through an “intermediary host”, which means it jumps from one species to another and then jumps from the second species to humans, they said.

But they added that the “reservoir hosts” – the animals in which the virus originated – remain to be identified.

Dr Peter Ben Embarek, leader of the WHO team, said: “The findings suggest lab incident hypothesis is extremely unlikely to explain the introduction of the virus into the human population.”

The team looked at four theories for the possible origins of the virus.

The first was direct transmission from an animal species into the human population.

The second was the introduction of the virus from an intermediary host species through another animal species “potentially closer to humans” where it could adapt, circulate and then jump to humans.

The third was the food chain and the potential for frozen products acting as a “surface” for the transmission of the virus.

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Dr Embarek said: “Our initial findings suggest that the introduction through an intermediary host is the most likely pathway and one that we will require more studies and more specific targeted research.”

Experts added that there is no evidence that the virus was present in Wuhan before December 2019.

They also said they “don’t know” the exact role of Wuhan’s Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market in the outbreak.

A cluster of cases was linked to the market.

But officials also found cases among people who had no ties to the market.

Some had links to other markets and others had no links to markets at all, they said.

Professor Liang Wannian, from the China National Health Commission, team leader on the Chinese side of the team, said: “Sars-CoV-2 may have originated from zoonotic transmission but the reservoir hosts remain to be identified.

“Evidence from surveys and targeted studies have so far shown that coronaviruses most highly related to Sars-CoV-2 are to be found in bats and pangolins, suggesting these mammals may be the reservoir of the virus that causes Covid-19.

“However, the viruses identified so far from neither of these species are sufficiently similar to Sars-CoV-2 to serve as direct progenitor of Sars-CoV-2.”

There have been more than 100 million cases around the world and 2.3 million deaths since coronavirus was first detected in December 2019.

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