SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, was identified almost 20 months ago but its exact origin remains uncertain. The World Health Organization commissioned an initial report on this matter and the authors of the report have now written a piece arguing that if we want an answer, work needs to be done now. Time is running out to find how the pandemic began.
The comment piece is published in the journal Nature. The scientists, experts in virology, zoonotic diseases, and epidemiology, use the published article to summarize what has been done so far in understanding the source of SARS-CoV-2. They also have a call to arms for what is required to understand how COVID-19 emerged.
“The window of opportunity for conducting this crucial inquiry is closing fast: any delay will render some of the studies biologically impossible. Understanding the origins of a devastating pandemic is a global priority, grounded in science,” the authors wrote in the piece.
Back in April, WHO’s director-general Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said that the original report was phase 1 of the investigation. The comment shows the six priorities needed for phase two. These will include investigations in both people and animals in regions inside and outside China from where the virus might have come from.
Wild animals such as bats and potential intermediate hosts will also have to be investigated thoroughly, trying to identify possible reservoirs of the virus. And last but not least, if a new credible lead pops up they ought to be followed up. And for this latter point to be possible, there ought to be international cooperation and transparency.
“The search for the origins of SARS-CoV-2 is at a critical juncture. There is willingness to move forward from both the WHO international team and the Chinese team. Crucially, the window is rapidly closing on the biological feasibility of conducting the critical trace-back of people and animals inside and outside China. SARS-CoV-2 antibodies wane, so collecting further samples and testing people who might have been exposed before December 2019 will yield diminishing returns,” the authors stressed.
The comment piece has also been an opportunity to address some of the criticism that the report received. In particular, there has been a lot of media focus on the idea that the virus escaped from a laboratory. The team actually followed this up through the report but found no evidence supporting this idea.
“In the report, and since, we have publicly called for any data supporting the lab-leak hypothesis to be published and submitted to the WHO. None has, so far,” the researchers explain.
A different international group of scientists not involved in the report found there is no evidence to suggest that the lab hypothesis is correct. And that focusing on this alone and not instead considering the more likely hypotheses will actually leave us more vulnerable to future pandemics.