WHO's COVID Investigation Confirms Virus Widely Circulating In Wuhan in December 2019

The World Health Organization's investigation into the origins of the coronavirus in Wuhan, China has found evidence that the virus was widely circulating in the province of Hubei by December 2019—when the first infection was reported.

New detailed data gathered on the trip found that Chinese scientists had discovered 174 infections in and around Wuhan that month. Of those cases, 100 were confirmed by laboratory tests and the other 74 through clinical diagnosis of symptoms.

"The virus was circulating widely in Wuhan in December, which is a new finding," the lead investigator on the WHO mission, Peter Ben Embarek, told CNN.

Scientists also indicated there were 92 suspected cases, where patients had COVID-like symptoms, in October and November of 2019.

Australian virologist Edward Holmes said it would be no surprise that those instances were cases of the novel coronavirus, given how many variants of the virus have been discovered.

"As there was already genetic diversity in SARS-CoV-2 sequences sampled from Wuhan in December 2019, it is likely that the virus was circulating for a while longer than that month alone," Holmes told CNN.

"These data fit with other analyses that the virus emerged in the human population earlier than December 2019 and that there was a period of cryptic transmission before it was first detected in the Huanan market,' he added.

However, the health agency said findings of the virus prior to December are still unsubstantial and continue to mark December as the beginning of the public health crisis.

"The start of the pandemic is estimated to have occurred somewhere in the months before the middle of December 2019, as most cases were reported during that time. The findings indicated no substantial unrecognized circulation of SARS-CoV-2 in Wuhan during October and November," WHO spokesperson Tarik Jašarević told Newsweek in an email.

Residents wear mask while walking down a street during the second day of the Spring Festival on February 13, 2021 in Wuhan, Hubei Province, China. An investigation into the origins of the coronavirus by the World Health Organization has found that the virus was widely circulating in Wuhan by December 2019. Stringer

The WHO team asked that the 92 suspected cases found prior to December 2019 be tested for antibodies in January, more than a year later, but of the 67 who agreed to be tested, all proved negative—indicating antibodies may not remain in former COVID-19 patients a year after their infection.

After months of tension between the U.N. agency and China, China vowed to cooperate and be transparent with the WHO investigation. The 12-day mission has seemed to boost the story China has stuck to regarding the virus' origins, ruling out the idea that COVID-19 came from a Wuhan lab.

However, the U.S. has criticized China for not providing wider access to earlier data, including thousands of blood samples from Wuhan that government officials have not let the WHO team examine at this time.

"What the U.S. has done in recent years has severely undermined multilateral institutions, including the WHO, and gravely damaged international cooperation on COVID-19," a spokesperson for the Chinese Embassy in the United States said in the statement. "But the U.S., acting as if none of this had ever happened, is pointing fingers at other countries who have been faithfully supporting the WHO and at the WHO itself."

Ben Embarek told CNN he hopes to return in several months to continue the investigation and examine the samples that could be used for a new set of studies.