Slow progress: On WHO's assurance to uncover origin of COVID-19

WHO must work alongside China in quickly uncovering the origins of the virus

December 02, 2020 12:02 am | Updated 08:55 am IST

In 2003, a WHO team was able to identify the animal source of SARS coronavirus within weeks despite its arrival in China nearly three months after the initial outbreak. In the case of MERS coronavirus, the intermediate host was identified more than a year after the first human case was reported. However, in the case of the novel coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2), its source is still unknown even 11 months after WHO reported the first case . Knowing the natural reservoirs and intermediate hosts and the events that allowed the virus to jump across the species barrier are important in prevention. Soon after the virus spread around the world, there was heightened demand to identify its origin in China’s Wuhan where the first case cluster was reported. Even as the global focus shifted to therapeutics and vaccine trials, it is reassuring that the global health body is still determined to find the virus’s origin. But the pace of investigation leaves much to be desired. Efforts began in February but it was only in early August that WHO completed the mission to lay the groundwork for joint efforts to identify the origin; its two-member team did not visit Wuhan, the epicentre of the outbreak. It was only in late October that China began early studies for the two-phase investigation. In the first phase, short-term studies will be undertaken to better understand how the virus might have begun circulating in Wuhan. Longer-term studies will follow based on these results. It is only then that a WHO-led team can operate in China to collaborate with Chinese scientists.

If China failed to alert WHO immediately after a Wuhan cluster was reported, its reluctance to quickly and earnestly investigate the source can partly be explained by U.S. President Donald Trump’s attempt to politicise the issue. The reluctance has only increased after mounting international ire over its reporting the outbreak and the huge economic cost of the pandemic globally. There is strong evidence that the virus originated in bats and probably spread to humans through an intermediate species. One way to find this out is to know the susceptibility of different animal species. Already, many animals including cats have been found susceptible to the virus in the lab and outside. With the virus spread so wide, zeroing in on the intermediate host becomes more difficult as the possibility of humans having spread the virus to animals cannot be ruled out. Hence, a multi-pronged approach with an emphasis on investigating China’s wildlife farms becomes crucial. This highlights the importance of working alongside China to uncover the virus’s origin.

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