The World Health Organization (WHO) is chiding China for using a hugely flawed Italian clinical study as proof COVID-19 originated in northern Italy and not in China.

Dr. Mike Ryan, WHO executive director of health emergencies, said it would be "highly speculative" for WHO to say the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 didn't originate in China, where it was first identified in a food market in the city of Wuhan in December 2019. SARS-CoV-2 (severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2) is the highly-contagious virus that causes COVID-19.

"I think it's highly speculative for us to say that the disease did not emerge in China," said Dr. Ryan said at a virtual briefing in Geneva after being asked if COVID-19 could have first emerged outside China.

"It is clear from a public health perspective that you start your investigations where the human cases first emerged," he asserted, saying evidence might then lead to other places.

He again said WHO intends to send researchers to the Wuhan food market to probe the origins of SARS-CoV-2.

WHO previously said COVID-19 and SARS-CoV-2 were unknown anywhere in the world before the Wuhan outbreak was reported in December. There is also evidence China had detected the virus before December but had withheld this information from the world to protect its reputation sullied by the SARS epidemic and continuing outbreaks of swine flu.

China's latest push to absolve itself of the blame for originating COVID-19 was triggered by a flawed Italian study saying there were asymptomatic SARS-CoV-2 carriers in northern Italy as far back as September. Northern Italy eventually became the epicenter of Italy's pandemic in the spring. From Italy, the virus moved to infect the rest of the European continent.

WHO reports there are 61.4 million confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 1.44 million deaths worldwide, as of 2:48 pm GMT Saturday.

Earlier this month, a study published by the Italian Cancer Institute (INT) reported finding neutralizing antibodies to SARS-CoV-2 in blood taken from healthy patients in Italy in October 2019 during a lung cancer screening trial.

Chinese state-controlled media immediately latched onto this report, claiming it clears China of the blame for starting the raging COVID-19 pandemic now on its tenth month.

"This once again shows that tracing the virus' source is a complex scientific question," said Zhao Lijian, a spokesman for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

He also said further analysis of its origin "should be left to scientists" and noted the source of the coronavirus could "involve multiple countries."

An expert involved in the INT study asserted the study findings don't eliminate China as the source of SARS-CoV-2.

"We know that China delayed announcing its outbreak," said Dr. Giovanni Apolone from Milan's National Cancer Institute.

"So there is no telling when it started there, and China has very strong commercial links with northern Italy."

Several Italian scientists are dismissing China's new blame game, saying it's well and truly impossible for the first asymptomatic patients to be detected in Italy in September 2019 and for the first COVID-19 patient to be confirmed in Italy only on Feb. 21, 2020, in a small town near Milan in the northern region of Lombardy.

It's now well-known people with SARS-CoV-2 manifest overt symptoms of the disease such as fever and a chronic cough anywhere from two to 14 days after infection.

"All of the patients in the study were asymptomatic despite most being 55-65 years old and having been smokers," said Dr. Mark Pagel, professor at the School of Biological Sciences at the University of Reading.

"This would normally be a high-risk group for COVID-19, so it is puzzling why all patients were asymptomatic."

Dr. Enrico Bucci, biologist adjunct professor at Philadelphia's Temple University, Pennsylvania, said, "the evidence brought to support such an extraordinary claim is not solid enough."

"Much ado about nothing," noted Dr. Antonella Viola, professor of general pathology at the University of Padua in Italy.

Italy is the second European country China has said is the source of SARS-CoV-2. Back in July, China blamed Spain for originating the coronavirus and not Wuhan.