WHO releases report on global tracing of Covid origins

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The World Health Organization (WHO) on Tuesday released a report on the global tracing of COVID-19 origins, following a joint research with China on issues including the pathways of the virus and future investigation in different countries.

LAB ORIGIN “EXTREMELY UNLIKELY”

A total of 34 experts from the WHO and China jointly conducted a 28-day research from Jan. 14 to Feb. 10 in Wuhan, China. They made assessment of the likelihood of possible pathways.

According to the report, COVID-19 introduction through an intermediate host is “likely to very likely,” introduction through cold/food chain products is “possible,” and introduction through a laboratory incident is “extremely unlikely.”

The experts also put forward a series of recommendations for future researches: developing a comprehensive information database, conducting further retrospective and systematic research around earlier cases and possible hosts, and analyzing the different role of the cold chain in the possible introduction and spread of the virus.

Though the process of finding the source of the virus is still ongoing, evidence and data included in this report offer some key glimpse into it. For example, the team “reviewed data from published studies from different countries suggesting early circulation” of the novel coronavirus, according to the report.

The findings showed that “some of the suspected positive samples were detected even earlier than the first case in Wuhan, suggesting the possibility of missed circulation in other countries,” the report said, adding that “Nonetheless, it is important to investigate these potential early events.”

Also on Tuesday, the WHO held a briefing on the report. During it, British zoologist Peter Daszak, a member of the WHO team, said the Chinese scientists did a lot of the work.

“Don’t think about national boundaries if we really want to defeat pandemics,” he said. “We have to come together with other countries to focus on how they emerge and try and stop them for the future.”

CHINA’S POSITIVE ROLE

China believes that the joint research will play a positive role in promoting global cooperation in COVID-19 origin tracing, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson said Tuesday.

He said China has always been a supporter of global scientific research on the source of the virus and its transmission routes. China co-sponsored the 73rd World Health Assembly resolution on COVID-19 and supports WHO-led cooperation on zoonotic source research among member states.

Despite the daunting task of domestic prevention and control, China twice invited WHO experts in for origin-tracing, said the spokesperson, adding that the Chinese side offered necessary facilitation for the team’s work, fully demonstrating its openness, transparency and responsible attitude.

Members of the WHO team have expressed similar feelings. Daszak said in early February that during the visit to the Wuhan Institute of Virology, the experts were met with a level of openness even he had not anticipated.

“I can’t stress enough how rewarding a process the trip has been. It went beyond all expectations in many ways,” said Thea Kolsen Fischer, also a WHO team member, in February. “When we have had discussions in the expert team, it has only been based on data and documentation.”

During a briefing on Tuesday, Liang Wannian, a member of the WHO-China joint team, said the novel coronavirus origin tracing research in China is part of the global study of origins of the virus, and it is the first step.

All the conclusions and recommendations in the report are based on a global perspective, and future research will not be limited to a certain area, Liang said.

Novel coronavirus origin tracing is about science, and it should be jointly carried out by scientists worldwide, said Chen Xu, head of the Chinese Mission to the United Nations in Geneva.

This joint research will play a positive role in promoting origin-tracing in many countries and regions around the world, and provide a scientific guide for the human race to better understand the virus, Chen added.

FUTURE STEPS

The size of the report and the amount of material and results, analysis and data in the report speak for themselves in terms of how the collaboration with the Chinese colleagues went, said Dr. Peter Ben Embarek, team leader for international experts, during the Tuesday briefing.

“There is still a lot of work to do,” he said, adding that recommendations laid out in the report are expected to be implemented in the coming weeks and months to get a better understanding of the origin of this virus.

Professor Dominic Dwyer from University of Sydney, also a member of the WHO team, said in February that the WHO mission was only phase one of the investigation. “Investigators will also look further afield for data, to investigate evidence the virus was circulating in Europe, for instance, earlier in 2019,” he noted.

“Investigators will continue to test wildlife and other animals in the region for signs of the virus,” he said. “And we’ll continue to learn from our experiences to improve how we investigate the next pandemic.”

In response to the suspicion surrounding COVID-19, David Heymann, professor of infectious disease epidemiology at London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, told Xinhua in a recent interview that “There’s always an attempt by countries to blame another country for something which happens.”

“What’s important is to deal with the infection when it’s there and devote all the attention to that, and then there’s a time for research to determine where viruses might come from in the future, and how those risks might be mitigated,” the professor added.

Echoing Heymann, Peter C. Doherty, a Nobel Prize winner, has recently told Xinhua that “It may be that we will never know exactly where this virus came from. And I don’t think that will make any real difference to how these viruses are handled.”

“We always want to blame someone. And I don’t think that’s what it’s about,” he added. “It’s not blaming people, it’s dealing with the problem.”

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