Experts studying the origins of the coronavirus for the World Health Organization warned on Wednesday that the investigation had “stalled” and further delays could make it impossible to uncover crucial evidence about the start of the pandemic.
“The window is rapidly closing the biological feasibility of conducting the critical trace-back of humans and animals inside and outside China,” the experts wrote in an editorial in the journal Nature. Several studies of blood samples and wildlife farms in China were urgently needed to understand how Covid-19 came about, they said.
Amid a rancorous debate over whether a lab incident could have triggered the pandemic, the editorial boiled down to a defense of the team’s work and a call for further research. A separate report from U.S. intelligence agencies on the origins of the pandemic was delivered to President Biden on Tuesday, but offered no new answers about whether the virus originated from a lab or from a natural overflow from animals to humans.
The international team of experts, which was sent to Wuhan, China in January as part of a joint World Health Organization and China investigation, has been criticized for publishing a report in March saying that a leak of the coronavirus from a lab, although possible , was ‘extremely unlikely’.
Immediately after the report’s publication, the WHO director-general said the study had not adequately assessed the possibility of a lab leak.
Virologists lean towards the theory that infected animals spread the virus to humans. In the editorial published on Wednesday, the team of experts reiterated the call to test the blood of workers at wildlife farms supplying animals to Wuhan’s markets to see if they had antibodies indicating previous coronavirus infections. The team also recommended screening more farmed wildlife or livestock that could be infected. (The editorial also notes, somewhat pessimistically, that many Chinese wildlife farms have closed and their animals have been killed since the pandemic broke out, making evidence of early animal-to-human landings hard to come by.)
The team pointed to a recent report showing that markets in Wuhan had sold live animals susceptible to the virus, including palm civets and raccoon dogs, in the two years before the pandemic began, and argued that the weight of evidence behind a natural overflow was greater. than that for a lab leak.
Marion Koopmans, a Dutch virologist and co-author of the editorial, described it in an interview as a ‘cry for urgency’.
“We started to worry a little bit that there’s really pretty much no discussion about most of the recommendations that aren’t related to the lab hypothesis, and of course there’s a lot of discussion about the lab story, especially coming from the US,” she said. . said. “Our concern is that because of that emphasis, the rest will no longer receive attention.”
To identify the first cases of the virus, Dr. Koopmans, scientists also had to examine blood samples from the end of 2019 before throwing them away. The team of experts received assurances during its visit to Wuhan that the blood banks there would keep samples outside the usual two-year period, she said, but still cannot access them.
The Chinese government is no longer cooperating with WHO investigations, making it difficult to assess theories about the origin of the virus.
Wednesday’s editorial also expressed concerns about delays at the WHO. The organization said this month it would form an advisory group to study the emergence of new pathogens, and that the group would support research into the coronavirus. The editorial warned that this new layer of bureaucracy “risks adding several months of delay”.
The organization said in a statement that “the creation of the advisory group will not delay the progress of investigations into the origin of the virus,” and that it has already been working to verify investigations into the earliest known cases outside of China.