Coronavirus: scientists reflect on 4 theories on the origin of the virus

Coronavirus: scientists reflect on 4 theories on the origin of the virus

GENEVA – A team of international and Chinese scientists are set to report on their joint research into the origins of the coronavirus that sparked a pandemic after it was first detected in China more than a year ago – with four theories at it study, and a clear favorite, according to experts.
The lengthy report comes after months of wrangling, including between the U.S. and Chinese governments, over how the outbreak came about, as scientists attempt to focus on so far unsuccessful research into the origin of a microbe that has killed more than 2.7 million people. the suffocated populations and economies of the world.

It was not immediately clear when the report will be released after its release was delayed earlier this month. According to many witnesses, the report may offer few concrete answers and raise other questions.

It will offer a first look in writing at 10 international epidemiologists, data scientists, veterinarians, laboratory and food safety experts who have visited China and the city of Wuhan – where a market was considered the initial epicenter – earlier this year to work with Chinese counterparts who collected most of the early data.

Critics have raised questions about the team’s objectivity, insisting that the Chinese government has a say in its composition. Advocates for the World Health Organization, which brought the team together, say it can’t just call in experts to tell a country what to do – let alone a country too powerful than China.

“I expect this report to be just a first step in investigating the origins of the virus and that the WHO secretariat will likely say so,” said Matthew Kavanagh, director of the Initiative. Global Health Policy and Governance from Georgetown University to the O’Neill Institute. . “And I expect some to criticize this as insufficient. ”

The trip to Wuhan is being billed as Phase 1 in a large-scale endeavor to flesh out the origins of the virus.

The WHO bristled with representations of the mission as an “investigation” – saying it smacked of an invasive forensic probe that was not called for by the resolution unanimously passed by member states of the world. agency in May that paved the way for collaboration. WHO and China subsequently worked out the ground rules.

Team member Vladimir Dedkov, epidemiologist and deputy director of research at the Pasteur Institute in St. Petersburg, Russia, summed up the four main avenues initially outlined at a marathon press conference in China last month on the presumed origins of the first infection in humans. They were, in order of likelihood: from a bat to an intermediate animal; directly from a bat; via contaminated frozen food products; from a leak from a lab like the Wuhan Institute of Virology.

Chinese officials, along with Chinese team leader Liang Wannian, have promoted the third theory – that of the cold chain – while the US administration under President Donald Trump played the fourth, that of the lab leak. . But Dedkov said those two hypotheses were far down the list of likely sources.

He suggested that the frozen products on which the virus was found were most likely contaminated by infected people. An infected person also likely brought and spread the virus to the Wuhan market associated with the outbreak, where some of the contaminated products were later found.

“In general, all the conditions for the spread of infection were present in this market,” Dedkov said in an interview. “Therefore, most likely, there was a massive infection of people who were logged in by location. ”

“At this point, there is no evidence to suggest that there has been a leak” from a lab, Dedkov said. “If suddenly scientific facts appear from somewhere, then the priority of the version will change as a result. But, at this precise moment, no. ”

Suspicions of political interference hampered the mission, and the head of the international team – Peter Ben Embarek of the WHO – admitted in interviews last week that unspecified “pressures” could weigh on its members. Liang, in an interview with a Chinese newspaper, also lamented the political pressure on the team.

Delays in the deployment of the international team to China, repeated slippages in the report’s release schedule and revised plans for it – a first summary of the results was dropped as an idea – did not only fuels speculation that scientists were led by political authorities or others.

“The last understanding we had was that it should come out this week – we’ll have to see if that actually happens,” US Chargé d’Affaires in Geneva, Mark Cassayre, said on Wednesday. “We clearly understand that further studies will be needed. ”

He said the United States hopes the report will be a “real step forward for the world to understand the origins of the virus, so that we can better prepare for future pandemics.” This is really what it is. ”

WHO leaders, including Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, have repeatedly praised the Chinese government’s swift response to the outbreak, though tapes of private meetings obtained by The Associated Press have revealed how senior WHO officials were frustrated by China’s lack of cooperation.

The international team was entirely dependent on data collected by Chinese scientists after the outbreak of the epidemic, and Dedkov called the visit to Wuhan “an analytical journey, mainly for the purpose of retrospective analysis in the sense that we didn’t have studied only the facts obtained earlier. ”

“We didn’t collect any samples ourselves, we didn’t do any lab studies there, we just analyzed what we were shown,” he said. If some data had not been collected, it was not because the Chinese wanted to hide something, he added.

The team’s visit was politically sensitive for China – which is concerned about any allegations it did not properly handle the initial outbreak. Shortly after the outbreak, the Chinese government arrested Chinese doctors who were trying to sound the alarm.

The report, which Ben Embarek said took about 280 pages last week, is expected to make recommendations and set the stage for next steps – for example, if the team, or others, gain new access to China. for further analysis. Ultimately, the goal is to find clues to help prevent another such pandemic in the future.

Georgetown’s Kavanagh said he had not seen the report – but had doubts what he will say.

“Based on what we’ve heard so far, I think the report will likely give some credibility to a link between wildlife farming and COVID-19, but without full evidence on exactly how whose passage from animals to humans may have occurred, ”he said. .

Dedkov said planning for “real-time search” was the next step, but noted that there is no guarantee that future trips will find all the answers.

“But we can try,” he added. “Of course, if the source of the origin of the virus is found, it will help answer many questions and, in general, will dispel this unnecessary political tension around the virus. ”


Frank Jordans in Berlin contributed to this report.


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