The World Health Organization (WHO) released their much-awaited global study on the origins of SARS-CoV-2 this week. While some preliminary conclusions were grasped, it’s still unclear how COVID-19 sprung into existence and the early days of the outbreak remain very hazy. All in all, many questions remain.
“All hypotheses remain on the table. This report is a very important beginning, but it is not the end. We have not yet found the source of the virus, and we must continue to follow the science and leave no stone unturned as we do,” Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the WHO’s director-general, said in a statement
The 120-page report was written by an international team of scientists specializing in virology, zoonotic diseases, and epidemiology. A large part of the report saw the team travel with Wuhan, the city in Central China where the virus was first reported in 2019. The team arrived in China on January 14, 2021, and, after two weeks of quarantine, they embarked on visiting key sites that have been suspected to play a role in the initial stage of the disease outbreak, including Huanan Market, Wuhan Institute of Virology, and a number of hospitals.
The report concludes it's very likely SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, jumped from an animal into the human population. The WHO team notes that extremely similar coronaviruses have been detected in wild bats and pangolin in China and other parts of East Asia. However, the city of Wuhan is not close to these wild populations, suggesting another animal acted as an intermediary host. For instance, it’s possible that wild bats transmitted the virus to animals being farmed in rural stretches of southern China, which were then transported to Wuhan. Direct transmission from the original animal reservoir to a human is still possible, but it's thought to be less likely.
The WHO report doubted whether the Huanan market was “ground zero” where the first animal-to-human transmission occurred, noting that many of the early cases had no link to the market.
Another key takeaway was that introduction of the virus through a lab incident was an “extremely unlikely pathway.” The Wuhan Institute of Virology has been accused by some of leaking the virus into the surrounding community as the facility was involved in the research of similar coronaviruses, and it's been loosely speculated it was linked to biological weapons research.
“There is no record of viruses closely related to SARS-CoV-2 in any laboratory before December 2019, or genomes that in combination could provide a SARS-CoV-2 genome,” the report reads.
The report has attracted flack for its lack of solid conclusions, while many have also suggested that the report authors did not have access to all of the necessary data. As BBC News reports, the WHO team did not have access to blood samples from people who gave blood in Wuhan in the weeks, months, and years before the outbreak. Swab samples from the last three weeks of December 2019 - thought to be a key period of the initial outbreak - were not available either.
The report has already been criticized by a number of international governments. The US, Australia, Canada, Czechia, Denmark, Estonia, Israel, Japan, Latvia, Lithuania, Norway, the Republic of Korea, Slovenia, and the UK have released a joint statement expressing concern the report was "significantly delayed and lacked access to complete, original data and samples." They also called for greater transparency when investigating future disease outbreaks.