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World Health Organization To Release Report On Origins Of Pandemic

NOEL KING, HOST:

How and when did the COVID-19 pandemic begin? This morning, the World Health Organization is releasing its report on the origins of the coronavirus. NPR has obtained a copy, which says the virus was likely circulating months before a big outbreak in Wuhan, China, in December of 2019 and that it did not begin in a seafood market there. Peter Daszak is with us now. He's an expert on how animal viruses can infect human beings. And he was part of the team that went to China to prepare this report.

Good morning, Peter.

PETER DASZAK: Good morning. How are you doing?

KING: Good, thank you. Where do you at the WHO think this virus originated?

DASZAK: Well, what we're really saying is we don't know exactly whether the Huanan Seafood Market in Wuhan was the source or not. It still could be. But it's also possible that other places within the region were the origin, the place where the virus first got into people. In fact, you know, we've traced back from that market that the suppliers of food to the market, which includes wildlife from all across China, including places in rural China, where we know the nearest viruses in bats, for instance, exist and it may have started there.

KING: OK, let's talk about the there that you mean. You're talking about farms in rural China. We are using the term or have been using the term wildlife farms. Can you explain what these farms are?

DASZAK: Well, this is a network of wildlife farms that was really promoted over the last few decades in China as a way to alleviate poverty (ph) - very successful. People would catch wildlife, things like civets, ferret-badgers, raccoon dogs, bamboo rats and breed them in captivity and sell them to restaurants or wildlife markets for food.

KING: Is the idea here that the virus may have spread from one of these farms, which supplies the seafood markets in Wuhan, and that's how it got out?

DASZAK: Yeah, the reports suggest that that's a plausible pathway. In fact, when we looked at all the pathways that this virus could have taken, both the China team and the WHO team found this to be the most likely pathway.

KING: OK. Did you have access to everything in China that you needed to conduct a thorough investigation?

DASZAK: Yeah, I mean, this was a very well set up joint mission from WHO where China scientists were out there gathering data for the last few months, in fact, for the last year.

KING: So what you're pointing out is that most of the research that your team analyzed was completed by Chinese scientists before the WHO team went to Wuhan. There have been questions in the past over China's transparency around data, particularly when it comes to this virus. Are you concerned at all about transparency?

DASZAK: Well, at this stage, we've been given a whole series of pieces of new evidence, new data that's laid out in the report - dozens of graphs, tables of testing of different animals, of people, interviews. Right now, that's pretty extensive, and that's a lot more than many people thought we would end up being able to achieve. And I think that at this point, that's good enough to allow us to follow different leads and say one is more likely than another.

KING: I want to ask you about the theory that this virus leaked out of a lab in China, which the WHO report does address. Now, the former director of the CDC, Dr. Robert Redfield. Is one of the people who say they think this virus escaped from a lab in Wuhan, likely referring to the Wuhan Institute of Virology. The report calls that extremely unlikely. What evidence ruled out that lab is the source of the outbreak?

DASZAK: Well, what makes it extremely unlikely is that no evidence at all ruled it in. I mean, you know, I understand Dr. Redfield having a personal opinion about these things, and he's absolutely entitled to. I respect that. But where there's no evidence at all of a lab leak - and then you go to the labs and talk to the directors, to the staff. You ask them about, you know, do you test your staff? Were they positive? Do you - you know, what sort of conditions do you have in the lab? What's the safety conditions? Do you audit the lab? Do you train staff in an adequate way, you know, even psychological evaluation of staff before they're allowed to work there - hundreds of hours of training before they're allowed to work in the virus safety labs. These are well-run labs. No evidence at all of a lab leak.

KING: Lastly, I must ask you, the Biden administration has publicly questioned this report's credibility. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said we've got real concerns about the methodology and the process that went into that report, including the fact that the government in Beijing apparently helped to write it. Some of your colleagues in the infectious disease world have been skeptical as well. Dr. Anthony Fauci talked yesterday at a briefing. He said, I'd like to see the report first. I'd like to inquire as to the extent in which the people who were on that group had access directly to the data. How can you assure the Biden administration and other health authorities that your methodology was sound and without undue influence from China?

DASZAK: Well, I think that when you get questions like this, it's always good to defer to the great Dr. Fauci, who said he'd like to see the report before he passes comment. And that's what we need to do. We need to read these hundreds of pages of new information, you know, questions asked, data supplied. It's never been done before. This is the deepest understanding we have yet on the origins of COVID. Let's read it. Let's look at the conclusions, and let's look at what next recommendations need to be done. They're in there, and I think that will answer most people's questions. It's a valid piece of work with great depth and a lot of new information in it.

KING: Peter Daszak is a disease ecologist and president of the EcoHealth Alliance. He was one of the investigators who helped to write the report. Thank you for your time, sir. We appreciate it.

DASZAK: My pleasure. Great talking to you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.