Since the first case of the novel Coronavirus outbreak was reported in Wuhan, China, it is considered the origin of the virus. But on Monday, August 3, the World Health Organization (WHO) had a different take on the origin mystery.

Dr Michael Ryan, the Executive Director of the WHO Health Emergencies Program, said that although the first clusters of atypical pneumonia were reported in Wuhan, "it doesn't necessarily mean" that the virus crossed from animal to human first in the Chinese city. It means that Wuhan may not be the place where the virus started infecting humans or the origin of the outbreak.

"One must remember that there was a specific surveillance system in place in Wuhan for picking up clusters of atypical pneumonia. It was there for a very specific purpose. And the fact that that fire alarm was triggered doesn't necessarily mean that that is where the disease crossed from animals into humans," he said at Monday's press briefing.

Michael Ryan
Michael Ryan, Executive Director of the WHO's Health Emergencies Programme Screen Grab/YouTube

Where Did the Virus Originate?

Dr Ryan's assertion has further deepened the mystery surrounding the virus' origin. Many experts including the U.S. Government reiterated that the virus came from Wuhan lab which studies virology. But there hasn't been any evidence to support the claim.

Atlantic Council's Jamie Metzl, a geopolitical expert, said that Wuhan's seafood market might not be a likely origin. While bats were thought to be the animal carrier of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, he said that the Wuhan seafood market didn't sell bats and most of the bat species would be in hibernation at that time. He added, "It was reported that 34 percent of cases had no contact with the market, and 'no epidemiological link was found between the first patient and later cases."

It gets even more confusing. Some experts also pointed towards the origin of the virus to 2013. The Canadian researchers said that the virus might have emerged in 2013 just after the MERS (Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome) outbreak and might have evolved into the SARS-CoV-2 virus.

Coronavirus
SARS-CoV-2 may not have breached animal-human barrier in Wuhan Wikimedia Commons

Another study indicates that the virus might have originated in Spain in March 2019. Spanish researchers found traces of the new Coronavirus in wastewaters of Spain nine months before the first reported case in Wuhan.

Furthermore, many countries including the U.S., Canada, Australia and India have demanded a thorough probe into the origins. While the WHO is the world body that should be tasked with investigating the origin, many countries including the U.S. have lost trust, citing China's influence. The U.S. has even begun the procedure to withdraw from the WHO.

WHO's Investigation

To get to the bottom of the story, the WHO had sent a team to China to study the origin of the virus last month. WHO Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said that the team concluded its mission and laid the groundwork for future joint missions to identify the origin of the virus.

Dr Michael Ryan on the origin of the virus (15:49-19:48)

While the WHO's mission might have been concluded, Dr Ryan believes to actually understand the origin of the virus, "more extensive, retrospective epidemiologic study" is required.

"There are gaps in the epidemiologic landscape and what is required is a much more extensive retrospective study to look at those first cases and clusters of Wuhan. It will help in fully understand the links between those cases so that we can then determine at what point the animal-human species barrier breached," he said.