Tracing the source of COVID 19

edited August 2021 in Other Political Debate

More than 11 million people worldwide have contracted COVID-19 and nearly 550,000 deaths are linked to the novel coronavirus. While we are battling the pandemic - and prepare for future ones - scientists believe it is wise to trace back the steps the virus has been taking. But there is still huge disagreement on the origins of the virus with China recently rejecting a World Health Organization plan for a second phase of an investigation into how the worst health pandemic in living memory started, writes Colin Stevens.

The WHO probe includes the hypothesis it could have escaped from a Chinese laboratory  but, on August 2, over 300 political parties, social societies and think tanks in over 100 countries and districts opposed what they called “politicizing virus origins-tracing”.

They issued a statement which added: “The origin-tracing is the shared obligation of all countries and it is a serious scientific issue that must be studied by scientists and medical experts around the world through cooperation. Any attempt of politicization, geographical labeling and stigmatization will only hinder the origin-tracing work and global effort on anti-epidemic."

The demand, which came in a joint statement sent to the World Health Organization WHO secretariat,appears to give tacit support to China’s position.

Even so, the origins of the virus remains contested among experts.

The first known cases emerged in the central Chinese city of Wuhan in December 2019. The virus was believed to have jumped to humans from animals being sold for food at a city market.

The 2 August letter to WHO came in the wake of the organization’s recent proposal of a second phase of a study into the origin of coronavirus.

China, opposing the move, says it has already taken the lead in cooperating with the WHO and experts, who carried out an on-site investigation and came to the conclusion that it is extremely unlikely for the virus to have been leaked from a Chinese lab.

Following a month-long fact-finding mission in China, a WHO team investigating the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic concluded that the virus probably originated in bats and passed to people through an intermediate animal.

Even so, fundamental questions remain about when, where and how SARS-CoV-2 first infected people.

From the EU side, the European Commission’s Research and Innovation Commissioner Mariya Gabriel has given her backing to a group of scientific experts and government representatives from the U.S., Australia and Japan who called on the Chinese government to “reconsider its decision to not engage in the World Health Organization's proposal for the next phase of the COVID-19 origins study.”

A spokesman at China’s mission to the EU in Brussels said: “China has always taken a scientific, professional, serious and responsible attitude in tracing the origins of the virus, and has twice invited WHO experts to China for origins tracing.”

Further comment on the thorny issue as to how the crisis originated comes from Jeffrey Sachs, a professor of economics at Columbia University in New York and head of the Lancet COVID-19 Commission.

Sachs said the only legitimate goal of the novel coronavirus origins tracing should be "to understand SARS-CoV-2 and work co-operatively together to end the pandemic and to prevent future pandemics”.

Sachs, like China, believes that the origins tracing should not become a geopolitical issue and he also suggests that the US "be transparent about the kinds of research underway on dangerous viruses in order to assess biosafety standards and to protect against laboratory-related spillovers".

There has been considerable research in both the US and China on SARS-like viruses, and it is argued  by Sachs that this research, much of which was US-funded with US-Chinese collaboration, should be examined to see what light it sheds on the origins of the spillover.

Elsewhere, Dutch virologist and a WHO team member Marion Koopmans, says that species more susceptible to the virus -- including bamboo rats, badgers and rabbits -- were sold at Wuhan's Huanan market, the site of an early virus cluster, and could be an entry point for trace-back investigations. 

British zoologist Daszak, a colleague of Koopmans, also said that new bat viruses discovered in Thailand and Cambodia, "shifts our focus to south-east Asia".

She noted: "I think one day we'll find it (the source). It might take some time but it will be out there without a doubt.”

Danish epidemiologist and another WHO team member, Thea Kolsen Fischer, said that the WHO team had not been given raw data, but instead relied on earlier analysis by Chinese scientists.

The British ambassador in Geneva, Simon Manley, said the first phase study was “always meant to be the beginning of the process, not the end”.

“We call for a timely, transparent, evidence-based, and expert-led phase two study, including in the People’s Republic of China, as recommended by the experts’ report,” he said.

Every time there is a major disease outbreak, one of the first questions scientists and the public ask is: “Where did this come from?”

Of course, in order to predict and prevent future pandemics like COVID-19, researchers need to find the origin of the viruses that cause them. This is not a trivial task and, clearly, it will be an easy task either.

For example, scientists still don’t know the origin of Ebola, even though it has caused periodic epidemics since the 1970s.

Marilyn  Roossinck, a professor of plant pathology in the United States and an expert on viral ecology, said: “I am often asked how scientists trace the origins of a virus. In my work, I have found many new viruses and some well-known pathogens that infect wild plants  without causing any disease. Plant, animal or human, the methods are largely the same.”

She concludesd: “Tracking down the origins of a virus involves a combination of extensive fieldwork, thorough lab testing and quite a bit of luck.”

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