WHO mission chief Peter Ben Embarek told CNN that the mission found several signs of the virus spreading in 2019, including the discovery of more than a dozen strains of the virus in Wuhan as early as December. The team also had the opportunity to speak with the first patient Chinese authorities say was infected, a 40-year-old clerk with no travel history who reportedly became infected on December 8.

The slow appearance of more detailed data collected during the WHO’s long-awaited visit to China could raise concerns among other scientists studying the origins of the disease, which may have spread to China long before it first appeared officially in mid-December.

Embarek, who has just returned from Wuhan in Switzerland, told CNN, “The virus spread widely in Wuhan in December, which is a new discovery.”

The WHO food safety expert added that 174 cases of coronavirus in and around Wuhan were submitted to the panel by Chinese scientists in December 2019. Of those, 100 were confirmed by laboratory tests, he said, and 74 were confirmed by clinical diagnosis of patient symptoms.

According to Embarek, such a large number – likely severe cases that Chinese doctors have seen before – could mean that the disease affected about 1,000 or more people in Wuhan in December.

“We haven’t made any models since then,” he said. “But we do know that in a large number of the infected population, about 15% end up with severe cases and the vast majority end up with mild cases.”

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Embarek said that as of December 1, the mission, which includes 17 WHO and 17 Chinese scientists, expanded the type of genetic material from the virus they were studying in the early stages of coronavirus. This allowed them to examine partial genetic samples, rather than full samples, he said. This allowed them to collect 13 different genetic sequences of the SARS VOC-2 virus for the first time since December 2019. When these sequences are studied along with broader data on patients in China later in 2019, they could provide valuable insights into the geography and timing of the outbreak through December.

Embarek said, “Some come from markets….the Huangan seafood market in Wuhan, which is believed to have played a role in the initial spread of the virus. “We found out that as part of our mission. As part of the interaction we all had together”.

The options raise big questions

Changes in the genetic structure of the virus are common and generally harmless, occurring over time as the disease moves and multiplies between humans or animals. Before December, Embarek refused to draw any conclusions about what the 13 strains might have meant for the history of the disease.

But the discovery of so many possible variants of the virus may indicate that the virus has been circulating longer than this month, as some virologists had previously suspected. This genetic material is probably the first physical evidence to emerge internationally to support such a theory.

Professor Edward Holmes, a virologist at the University of Sydney in Australia, says, “Given that genetic diversity was already present in the SARS-CoV-2 sequences taken in Wuhan in December 2019, it is likely that the virus has been circulating for longer than this month.”

Holmes, who has long studied the origin of the virus, said the 13 sequences could indicate that the virus spread undetected for some time before the outbreak in Wuhan in December. “These results are consistent with other analyses that the virus appeared in the human population before December 2019 and that there was a period of cryptic transmission before it was first detected in the Huangan market,” he said.

The WHO team held a three-hour press conference with its Chinese counterparts in Wuhan last week to present its findings. Since then, more and more details have come to light about the precise data they had and sometimes did not have.

Mr. Embarek said the shipment was analyzed by Chinese scientists to detect 92 suspected cases of Covid-19 that occurred in October and November 2019 – in patients with Covid-like symptoms and seriously ill people. The WHO team has requested that these 92 patients be tested for the antibody in January. Mr. Embarek said 67 of them had agreed to be tested and all were negative. He added that further testing is needed because it is not yet known whether antibodies are still present in former patients with Covida 19 disease after a year.

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But Mr. Embarek was also intrigued by how the 92 cases were distributed across the two months and the geographical areas of Hubei. Mr. Embarek said the 92 cases, as presented to the WHO team, did not occur in clusters, as is often the case in epidemics. Instead, they were distributed in small numbers over the two months and in Hubei Province, where Wuhan is located.

“There was no buildup in some places,” he said. “It would have been picked up.” It is still unclear whether the 92 cases are linked to the coronavirus and what the lack of clustering might mean.

Embarek also reported that the mission was able to meet with the first Covid 19 patient the Chinese said they knew. The 40-year-old Wuhan resident could not be identified and had no recent travel experience.

“It’s not related to the markets,” Mr. Embarek said. “We’ve talked to him, too. He has a very normal, boring life, no mountain hiking. He was an office clerk in a private company”.

China promises to cooperate

China has promised transparency in the WHO investigation. In response to the United States’ criticism of the request for access to previously obtained data, the Chinese Embassy in Washington said, “What the United States has done in recent years has seriously undermined multilateral institutions, including the WHO, and seriously harmed international cooperation on COWID-19,” a spokesman for the Chinese Embassy in the United States said in a statement.

“But the United States claims none of this ever happened, pointing the finger at other countries that have faithfully supported the WHO, and at the WHO itself,” the statement continued.

Mr. Embarek said the WHO team hopes to return to Wuhan in a few months to continue the research, although he could not provide specific dates for a confirmed trip.

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He said the team hopes to urgently study biological samples that experts say were not available on this first trip, thousands of samples from the Wuhan blood bank two years ago.

“There are now about 200,000 samples that are protected and can be used for a new set of studies,” Embarek said. “It would be great if we could work [with that].”

Mr. Embarek explained that there may be technical difficulties in accessing these samples. “We understand that these samples are very small and are only used for testing purposes,” he said. “There is no mechanism to allow routine research with these samples.”

He stated that they also could not dispose of some other biological test samples that could have been useful during the Wuhan mission. “Many samples were discarded after a few months or weeks, depending on the purpose for which they were taken,” he said.

According to Embarek, the conditions of the mission – intense quarantine periods and social distance – led to some frustration, as well as a general focus on their behavior and performance.

“We’ve been working closely with two groups of a large number of scientists over the past month,” he said. “And of course, this is a unique opportunity. As always, between passionate scientists, you engage in passionate discussions and then you argue about this and that.

“Don’t forget that we have the entire planet on our shoulders 24 hours a day for a month, which doesn’t make the scientists’ job any easier.”

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