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WHO report on origin of SARS-CoV-2:An important beginning, but not the end

PT Jyothi Datta Mumbai | Updated on March 31, 2021

A file picture of Peter Ben Embarek, and other members of the WHO team tasked with investigating the origins of the coronavirus disease, arrive at the Pudong International Airport in Shanghai, China   -  REUTERS

Leads on host animal, first identification of the virus, asymptomatic cases and lab leak theory, among other things need more research

If anyone expected the World Health Organization-convened team’s fact-finding ground report from Wuhan to be the final one with answers to the origin of the novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2, it was anything but that.

In fact, the consistent statement from researchers, in their media interaction, was that the report was preliminary, but packed with plenty of data and leads for further investigation. Leads on possible infections way back in October 2019 and references to possible sources in China, outside of Wuhan — which the world came to recognize as Ground-Zero of the pandemic. The first official identification of the virus dates to December 2019.

WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said the report was a comprehensive review of available data, suggesting there was unrecognised transmission in December 2019, and possibly earlier. “The team reports that the first detected case had symptom onset on December 8, 2019. But to understand the earliest cases, scientists would benefit from full access to data including biological samples from at least September 2019,” he said.

Critical of circumstances leading to the report, he said, the team expressed “difficulties they encountered in accessing raw data. I expect future collaborative studies to include more timely and comprehensive data sharing.”

Four pathways

Pointing out that they had “only scratched the surface”, Dr Peter Ben Embarek , WHO lead of the international research team to China, outlined four pathways investigated for the source of the virus: a direct host like the bat; a possible intermediary (since the wet market was investigated as a hotspot); contaminated frozen foods from farms that have wild animals, and a lab leak.

The “for and against” for all hypotheses were looked at, he said, and given the intense interest and conspiracy theories circulating, he said, the team stuck to facts and away from “suspicions”. Multiple researchers pointed out that the lab leak theory did not seem to have data to support it. And according to Embarek, they could not access raw data for reasons that were true in many countries, involving privacy laws.

Tedros’ statement, however, said, the team visited several laboratories in Wuhan to investigate the laboratory incident. “However, I do not believe that this assessment was extensive enough,” he said.

Although the team concluded that a laboratory leak was the least likely hypothesis, “this requires further investigation,” he said, reiterating that “äll hypotheses remain on the table”. He had said this after the first briefing by the team from Wuhan, when the team’s statements discrediting the lab leak theory received much flak internationally.

Just the beginning

The latest report, Tedros said, was an “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.”

Responding to a query from BusinessLine on why there were no reports of the virus from other parts of China, if the virus was possibly circulating from October, one of the researchers on the team, Marion Koopmans, said, “from the sequence data, there was identical viruses early on in different provinces so it is not ruled out that this started somewhere else.”

Researchers pointed out that mild and asymptomatic cases too may have slipped below the radar, a case for more work to be done. Meanwhile, 14 countries, including the US, Australia and Canada expressed their reservations on the WHO report and called for greater access and transparency in such situations in the future.

Published on March 31, 2021

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