“We have not received any data or specific evidence from the U.S. government relating to the purported origin of the virus — so from our perspective, this remains speculative,” WHO emergencies director Michael Ryan told a virtual briefing.
Scientists believe the killer virus jumped from animals to humans, emerging in China late last year, possibly from a market in Wuhan selling exotic animals for meat.
Top U.S. epidemiologist Anthony Fauci echoed the WHO’s statement in an interview published on Monday by National Geographic. “If you look at the evolution of the virus in bats and what’s out there now, (the scientific evidence) is very, very strongly leaning toward this could not have been artificially or deliberately manipulated,” Mr. Fauci told the magazine.
“Everything about the stepwise evolution over time strongly indicates that (this virus) evolved in nature and then jumped species,” he said.
U.S. President Donald Trump, increasingly critical of China’s management of the outbreak, claims to have proof it started in a Wuhan laboratory.
And U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Sunday said “enormous evidence” backed up that claim, although the U.S. intelligence community last week said it would continue to study whether the outbreak stemmed from infected animal contact, or a lab accident. China has vehemently denied suggestions the lab was the source.
“Like any evidence-based organisation, we would be very willing to receive any information that purports to the origin of the virus,” WHO’s Mr. Ryan said.
“If that data and evidence is available, then it will be for the U.S. government to decide whether and when it can be shared, but it is difficult for the WHO to operate in an information vacuum in that regard,” he added.
WHO expert Maria Van Kerkhove stressed during Monday’s briefing that there were some 15,000 full genome sequences of the novel coronavirus available, and “from all of the evidence that we have seen… this virus is of natural origin.”
The global death toll from the pandemic topped a quarter of a million on Tuesday, with the U.S. government predicting a further surge in fatalities as an international vaccine drive garnered $8 billion in pledges.
Since the disease first surfaced in China late last year the number of confirmed cases has reached almost 3.6 million while fatalities have topped 251,000.
Europe remains the hardest-hit continent with around 145,000 deaths while the US has recorded close to 68,700, the biggest single-country toll.
The bleak figures were compounded on Monday by an internal government estimate in Washington that forecast the COVID-19 infection rate in the U.S. could surge eight-fold to 200,000 a day by June 1, and the daily death toll could rise to 3,000.