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WHO and critics examine next steps to investigate origins of viruses

The international and Chinese joint mission organized by the World Health Organization into the origins of Covid released its report last week, suggesting that for almost all of the topics covered, further study was needed. What kind of study and who will do it is the question.

The report suggested pursuing several avenues of investigation, focusing on the probable origin of the coronavirus in bats. He concluded that the most likely route to humans was through an intermediate animal, possibly at a wildlife farm. Among future efforts, it could include surveys of blood banks to look for cases that may have appeared before December 2019 and to look for potential animal sources of the virus on wildlife farms, the team.

Critics of the report sought to further examine the possibility that a laboratory incident in Wuhan may have led to the first human infection. A loosely organized group of scientists and others who have come together virtually to discuss the possibility of a lab leak published an open letter this week, detailing several ways to conduct a full investigation. He called for new measures, saying that “critical records and biological samples that could provide essential information on the origins of the pandemic remain inaccessible.”

Much of the letter echoes an earlier version from the same group detailing what they saw as WHO’s mission failures. This second letter is more specific in the type of future surveys it offers.

The group is seeking a new investigation that would include experts in biosafety and biosafety, one that could involve the WHO or a separate multinational effort to set up a different process to explore the beginnings of the pandemic and its origins. in China.

Jamie Metzl, author, senior researcher for the Atlantic Council, an international policy think tank and signatory of the scientists’ letter, said renewed calls for further investigation reflected the need for monitoring and restrictions increases on viruses that can be studied. in laboratories around the world.

“This is not about ganging up on China,” Metzl said.

Mr Metzl’s group were among those disappointed by the report released last week, as it outright dismissed the possibility of a leak from the Wuhan Institute of Virology, calling it extremely unlikely.

WHO chief Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus later said the mission’s review of a possible lab leak was not “broad enough”.

He continued, “While the team concluded that a lab leak is the least likely hypothesis, it requires further investigation, possibly with additional missions involving specialist experts, which I am prepared to deploy. “

From the start, the mission of the mission has never been to investigate safety or procedures at the Wuhan laboratory, where much research has been done on bat coronaviruses in recent years, or any other. laboratory in China.

What WHO member countries have authorized is a collaborative scientific effort by a group of international experts and their Chinese counterparts to study the origins of the pandemic.

The team of international scientists had neither the power nor the mandate to act independently of their Chinese colleagues. As dictated by member countries, every word in the report had to be endorsed by both the Chinese and international group. They spent 28 days in China, including two weeks in quarantine in a hotel.

The result, which includes a thorough review of the existing scientific literature, gathers evidence for a general understanding of the virus’s origins – that a bat coronavirus likely transmitted it to another animal and then to humans. This is what happened with the previous coronavirus outbreaks of SARS and MERS.

Similar viruses have been found in bats and pangolins, although they are not close enough to spread to humans. The suspicion of a laboratory leak is based on the idea that Chinese laboratories are collecting and studying these viruses and that Chinese scientists are lying about the research they are doing or not knowing what is going on in their institutions.

Shi Zhengli, director of the Wuhan Institute of Virology, and other internationally renowned Chinese scientists said SARS-CoV-2 was not present in any Chinese laboratory. Neither was any virus close enough to it to make people jump, they said.

Some experts who have not signed either of the two open letters criticizing the WHO believe a different kind of investigation is needed.

Dr Daniel Lucey, an infectious disease expert at Georgetown University, said he believed, based on the genetics of the virus and the many established precedents for the spread of disease from animals to humans, that the virus originated from of nature. But he also said he believed it was possible that he was present in a Wuhan lab and escaped to trigger the pandemic, possibly because someone was accidentally infected.

He said that overall, on the question of viral origins, “I’m really not convinced that this is from a lab, but there isn’t enough investigation.”

He said he believed the report amounted to a “Grand Slam home run” for China. What China wants, he said, “is to create reasonable doubt that the virus started in China.” And, he said, the report suggests that it is possible that the virus originated in other countries in Southeast Asia, and possibly even in Europe.

Jesse Bloom, an evolutionary biologist at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, who did not sign either of the two critical letters, said he had not seen evidence in the report to support a rejection of the possible role of a laboratory.

“I think the natural origins of the pandemic are quite plausible,” said Dr Bloom, but added that he agreed with Dr Tedros that the assessment of a laboratory accident was not thorough enough and required further investigation.

Besides the lab, the report mentions several promising directions for future study, including tracing the path of animal products or animals that may have transported the virus to markets in Wuhan.

Peter Daszak, the head of the EcoHealth Alliance, who has been criticized by laboratory leak theorists for his previous work with the Wuhan Institute of Virology, said the results so far pointed to wild animal farms as the most likely places for the spread from animals to humans. . There are many such farms in China and Southeast Asia, and animals there, such as raccoon dogs and civets, come in contact with bats and humans. Thousands of tests on animals and animal samples from China, including seafood and other markets, have shown no evidence of SARS-CoV-2, report says of the WHO.

The report also mentions that mink and cats have been shown to be easily susceptible to infection, presumably of human origin, and are potential reservoirs of the virus. Cats have not been shown to transmit the virus to humans, but minks have. China has a thriving mink industry but has not reported any mink farm infections to the WHO

Dr Lucey said he called the lack of information on China’s mink farms “The Mink’s Silence.”

When it comes to human studies, the report suggests that testing blood in blood bank donations from September to December 2019 could be very helpful. The first recorded outbreak occurred in the Huanan market in Wuhan in December 2019.

Marion Koopmans, a Dutch virologist at Erasmus University Rotterdam, said the WHO mission has asked the Wuhan blood bank system to hang on to blood donations from this period. It was accepted, she said, and now the Chinese are asking permission to test blood for antibodies to the virus that could help determine exactly when the virus first appeared in humans. If such studies were prolonged, it could also help localize.

Dr Koopmans said she hoped studies on donated blood could be extended to other provinces and regions outside of China. “My perfect study design would be for you to include regions in Italy and France where there were possible indications of the presence of the virus before December,” she said.

She said standardized tests should be carried out for all the regions in question. This in turn could indicate isolated pockets of early onset of the virus. Wildlife testing in these areas could be productive.

Dr Koopmans defended the WHO team’s mission, saying it had always been designed as a scientific study with Chinese colleagues. If an investigation is the goal, she says, “you have to do an inspection or something, but it’s not a scientific study.”

On this point, the critics agree. One of the most revealing sections of the WHO critics’ letter concerns the composition of a team to investigate the Chinese laboratories. If the ground rules for a second mission are rewritten, the letter says, WHO should “ensure the incorporation of a broader skill set into the team of international experts, including experts in biosafety and environmental protection. biosecurity, biodata analysts and experienced forensic investigators.

Almost at the very end of the report, discussing what should be done to find out more about the likelihood of a laboratory incident, the report recommends: “Regular administrative and internal review of top biosafety laboratories around the world . Follow-up of new evidence provided around possible laboratory leaks. “

Mr Metzl said he couldn’t agree more and said that in the future such a review should include US labs. But, he said, the pandemic is of the utmost urgency and he wants to start right away with China. Still, he and the other signatories of the two letters, he said, are very concerned about virus research around the world.

While many virologists and disease specialists want to collect and study viruses in order to learn more and be better prepared for outbreaks, Metzl said he and others wanted more restrictions on studies on viruses.

“It absolutely makes sense to establish a global regulatory system overseeing aggressive work with dangerous or deadly pathogens everywhere,” he said.

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