Tracing the origins of COVID-19: Three questions

Why We Wrote This

Scientists are working to trace the origins of the novel coronavirus. Their aim is not to point fingers. Rather, it's about preventing this from happening again.

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A man walks by the closed Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market in Wuhan, China Jan. 17, 2020. Scientists say COVID-19 was transmitted from animals to humans in late 2019, but they're still working out how that happened. Some say it may have occurred at the Huanan market.

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As governments work to contain COVID-19 and reopen their economies, scientists are racing to trace the novel coronavirus’s origin with the hope of not only improving the world’s ability to fight this pandemic, but also preventing future outbreaks.

In the past 30 years, more than 50 novel viruses have made the leap from animals to humans. Scientists say that better understanding this complex crossover between animal and human health is vital to saving lives.

The World Health Organization says the novel coronavirus likely originated in bats. But how exactly it made its way to humans in late 2019 is unclear. Most scientists think the virus was first transmitted to humans in an area where people and animals are in close contact, but other possible scenarios have also been proposed, including a laboratory origin for the virus. 

Scientists say tracing exactly how the novel coronavirus made the leap is key to combating the pandemic and preventing future ones. It will allow scientists and policymakers to prioritize steps to prevent this virus from being reintroduced into the population, and also to guard against the transmission of new coronaviruses.

As governments work to contain COVID-19 and reopen their economies, scientists are attempting to trace the novel coronavirus’s origin with the hope of not only improving the world’s ability to fight this pandemic, but also preventing future outbreaks.

In the past 30 years, more than 50 novel viruses have made the leap from animals to humans. Scientists say that better understanding this complex crossover between animal and human health is vital to saving lives.

Here’s a brief synopsis of their efforts so far. 

Editor’s note: As a public service, all our coronavirus coverage is free. No paywall.

Why is discovering when, where, and how the virus originated considered so important?

The World Health Organization (WHO) says the novel coronavirus likely originated in bats. But how exactly it made its way to humans in late 2019 is unclear. 

Scientists say tracing how the novel coronavirus made the leap is key to combating the pandemic and preventing future ones. It will allow scientists and policymakers to prioritize steps to prevent this virus from being reintroduced into the population, and also to guard against the transmission of new coronaviruses.

“The public health importance of this is critical, because without knowing where the animal origin is, it’s difficult for us to attempt to prevent this from happening again,” says Maria Van Kerkhove, the American infectious disease epidemiologist serving as the WHO’s technical lead for COVID-19. “This happens with all emerging pathogens, because most emerging pathogens come from animals,” she said in a May 6 press briefing.

Scientists traced two earlier coronaviruses – severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) – relatively rapidly from bats to the animals that infected humans: civets (SARS) and camels (MERS). So far, scientists have yet to confirm the direct transmitter of this virus to humans, though pangolins are a key suspect – or perhaps it was bats themselves.

What do we know about the origins of the virus?

Most scientists believe the virus was first transmitted to humans in an area where people and animals are in close contact. Chinese officials said it originated in the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market, a wet market in Wuhan where live animals were sold. But months after animals from the market were reportedly tested, China has yet to reveal those test results. A Lancet study found two-thirds of early patients were exposed to the market; the rest, including the first known patient, were not. 

Those discrepancies have led some to speculate about other possible scenarios. One: that the virus was engineered in a lab. A team of researchers rejected that idea in a paper in the journal Nature, writing that the characteristics of the virus do not fit that scenario.

The Trump administration has backed another idea: that the virus escaped from a lab studying such diseases in bats, jumping straight to humans. 

Such an accident is not unimaginable. The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists has detailed numerous instances of pathogens escaping from labs. A 2018 State Department cable reportedly warned of safety concerns at Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV), the first biosafety level 4 lab in China. 

Trump administration officials have said there was “enormous evidence” supporting the lab accident theory. But they have not revealed details. 

Scientists, while not outright dismissing that scenario, have said that it is highly unlikely based on the lack of evidence and what is known so far about how bat coronaviruses are transmitted. Additionally, WIV researchers have said the novel coronavirus isn’t a genetic match to the coronaviruses studied in their labs. 

To what extent are scientists able to stay above the political fray?

The WHO is in discussions with China about a follow-on research mission focused on animal origins of COVID-19, as recommended by the WHO in February, Dr. Van Kerkhove said in early May. The mission, supported by the WHO, would take an “academic” approach and “really focus on looking at what happened at the beginning in terms of the exposures with different animals,” she said.

Despite the U.S.-China political tensions, some U.S. scientists are reportedly already working with Chinese scientists to investigate the virus origins. 

Ian Lipkin, director of the Center for Infection and Immunity at the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University, said he is cooperating with a Chinese team to research whether this novel coronavirus existed in other parts of China before it was discovered in Wuhan in December, according to a Financial Times report. Dr. Lipkin worked on the 2003 SARS outbreak and has close professional ties in China, through which he is seeking access to key Chinese data important for international collaboration on the virus.

Staff writer Christa Case Bryant contributed to this report.

Editor’s note: As a public service, all our coronavirus coverage is free. No paywall.

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