Peter Ben Embarek, the lead investigator for the World Health Organization team looking into the origins of the Covid-19 outbreak, is seen at the Hubei Center for Animal Disease Control and Prevention in Wuhan, China on Feb.2. Hector Retamal / AFP / Getty Images
World Health Organization investigators looking into the origins of the coronavirus in China have found evidence that the December 2019 outbreak in Wuhan was much further than previously thought. They are urgently seeking access to hundreds of thousands of blood samples from the city that China has not yet had examined.
WHO mission lead investigator Peter Ben Embarek told CNN in a comprehensive interview that the mission found several signs of wider spread in 2019, including a first-time finding that there were over a dozen strains of the virus in Wuhan in December.
The team also had the opportunity to speak to the first patient Chinese officials said had been infected. An office worker in his 40s with no travel history to speak of who was reported infected on December 8th.
The slow emergence of more detailed data gathered during the WHO’s long-awaited trip to China may raise concerns from other scientists studying the causes of the disease the virus may have spread in China long before its first official appearance in mid-December.
Embarek, who has just returned to Switzerland from Wuhan, told CNN:
“The virus was widespread in Wuhan in December, which is a new finding.”
He stated that Chinese scientists presented 174 cases of coronavirus in and around Wuhan to his team in December 2019. Of these, 100 had been confirmed by laboratory tests and another 74 had been confirmed by clinical diagnosis of the patient’s symptoms.
Embarek said it was possible that this larger number – likely serious cases noted early by Chinese doctors – meant the disease could have hit an estimated more than 1,000 people in Wuhan in December.
Embarek said the mission, which was attended by 17 WHO scientists and 17 Chinese, expanded the type of viral genetic material they studied from early coronavirus cases in early December. This enabled them to look at partial genetic samples, rather than just full ones, he said. As a result, from December 2019 they were able to collect 13 different genetic sequences of the SARS-COV-2 virus for the first time. The sequences, if examined with broader patient data in China in 2019, could provide valuable clues about the geography and timing of the outbreak before December.
Embarek said, “Some of them are from the markets … some of them are not affiliated with the markets,” which includes the Huanan Fish Market in Wuhan, which is believed to have one when the virus first spread Played role. “This is something we found as part of our mission … as part of the interaction we all had together.”
Read more of this exclusive CNN report Here.