Time to trace origins of coronavirus running out—scientists

    If investigations on the origin of the coronavirus pandemic will not be made in time, scientists say, it will be “biologically impossible” to conduct some studies when the window of opportunity is gone.
    According to 11 scientists, top on the list of priorities for a second probe is to search for earlier cases in and out of China, including the possibility of animal hosts.

    In their first joint statement, the 11 independent scientists of the World Health Organization-led investigination into the origins of the novel coronavirus say time is running out in findign answers.

    They wrote in a comment published on Nature journal, “the window of opportunity for conducting this crucial inquiry is closing fast; any delay will render some of the studies biiologically impossible.

    The world hangs on waiting for the final findings as to the origin of the global pandemic. A deadlock over the conduct of a second phase of the WHO-backed probe to further carry on besets the experts, as at the heart of the matter is the lab leak theory—which was floated in the first phase of the investigation early this year, for which Beijing strongly disagreed.

    Because of it, Beijing rejected another phase of the research and announced it in July, as the conduct included laboratory audits in its proposal. It was apparent the audits would explore the lab leak theory from a Wuhan laboratory.

    In the same vein, China has suggested to focus similar research outside its borrder while accusing the United States of playing up the lab leak theory.

    Meanwhile, the possibility of spreading infection via animal hosts has gained some acceptance as some sector in the scientific community have recommended further study, which was most likely the more viable result the WHO team considered.

    It is also more favored by most known experts who say these viruses have been spill over from animal trade and wet markets, as early cases have shown.

    No conclusive evidence forwarded

    However, the team of scientists said they had no conclusive evidence for any theory on their mission. But they found the lab leak theory “too important to ignore.” They were criticized, however, for not further exploring the lab leak theory and for finding it “extremely unlikely” it could occur.

    They said they questioned lab directors at three Wuhan facilities handling related viruses about biosafety or signs of illness among their staff during the months that led to the outbreak.

    “When we reviewed the responses to our questions on this issue, and all other available data, we found no evidence for leads to follow up; we reported this fact,” wrote the co-authors to the Nature journal who did not include any of the WHO officials who were also on the Wuhan mission.

    There had been “much new information” provided during the course of their study but noted insufficient data-sharing, including “reluctance” in sharing raw data relating to early patients, citing patient confidentiality.

    Questioning WHO’s plan of action

    In their latest statement, the team raised questions on WHO’s plan for the next phase of research. Aside from the lab audits the WHO proposes, it also calls for the formation of a new permanent body of scientists who will take over the tracing work on the origins of the virus.

    According to the original team, “Applying this new process to the continuing Sars-CoV-2 origins mission runs the risk of adding several months of delay. Member-state representatives would need to negotiate detailed terms around the sensitive issue of investigating laboratory practices, then nominate and select team members, who would then have to develop a work plan.”

    Losing time would mean losing the chance to find critical evidence, such as traces of past infection in human and animal blood, considering the second year since the emergence of the pandemic is fast approaching.

    WHO’s proposal of lab audits, according to Dutch virologist Marion Koopmans, “runs the risk of further delays. I am not saying they should not be discussed, as this is a clear wish from several member states, but it is certainly something China has responded to and is a different type of approach that is difficult to combine with scientific mission.”

    The team, in its Nature journal statement, instead sticks to the six priorities it laid out for the second phase of the research in China and elsewhere. They said they had presented the same to the WHO.

    The priorities include: looking for earlier cases of COVID-19 in all regions in and out of China that had proof of earlier circulation; analysis of exposures of early cases; targeted searches for possible animal hosts; investigation of wildlife farms that supply Wuhan markets, and following any credible new leads. (RA/The MiNT)

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