WHO is sending a mission to Wuhan, in Hubei province, but has said investigators will be there only to “advance the understanding of animal hosts for Covid-19 and ascertain how the disease jumped between animals and humans”.
The statement appears to rule out a visit to the Wuhan Institute of Virology and suggests the body has already discounted the possibility the virus may have been cooked up or modified in the lab.
Bosses at WHO have also declined to provide details of places its investigators will inspect or the people they will meet – however, it is understood Chinese authorities will monitor and limit all movements.
It had previously emerged the lab had held a coronavirus sample that was 96.2 per cent the same as Covid-19 for almost a decade. This prompted speculation about the origin of the virus, despite scientists overwhelmingly believing the genetic code of the virus suggests it mutated naturally.
Richard Ebright, a molecular biologist at Rutgers University in New Jersey, said: “To have any value, an investigation must address the possibility the virus entered humans through a laboratory accident.”
He added WHO should also consider if the virus’s ability to infect humans was “enhanced through laboratory manipulation”.