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We might never know the true origin of the novel coronavirus

Published Nov 2nd, 2020 7:00PM EST
Coronavirus Origin
Image: vladimirhodac/Adobe

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  • The World Health Organization will soon reveal more details about the planned investigation of the novel coronavirus’s origin in China.
  • The WHO negotiated the terms of the upcoming investigation with China over the summer, without revealing any of the conclusions to the public.
  • A New York Times report reveals the first details of the WHO-China agreement, the investigations and field-work that will follow, and the access that international experts will get to China.

At least 10 months have passed since the first novel coronavirus cases were diagnosed as pneumonia of unknown origin. Little did we know at the time that the pathogen would engulf the entire world in what was to become a pandemic of Spanish flu proportions. China’s initial response seemed more than satisfactory compared to SARS, even though reports quickly emerged detailing the censorship that impacted the response to the health crisis.

But as the illness moved to Europe and the US, it became clear that the virus behaved much differently than the flu. The evolution of the Wuhan COVID-19 outbreak suggested the pandemic could be contained with drastic measures that were easy to deploy in a regime like China’s. There was hope that even without draconian lockdowns like the one in Wuhan, countries would be able to manage their own coronavirus outbreaks. Italy, Spain, and the US then proved the contrary. In fact, even strict lockdowns were not as successful as China’s. The fact that the virus might have mutated into a more contagious version since hitting the Western countries didn’t help either.

As time went by, it became clear that China wasn’t eager to release the novel coronavirus’s real origin story. Conspiracies ran wild on social media, suggesting the virus was created in a lab or escaped from one, and that China was trying to conceal it. But researchers proved in March that the virus was of animal origin, concluding that it passed to humans directly from the original host, or that it jumped to an intermediary before infecting the first human. China repeatedly denied allegations that foul play was at hand, but failed to provide much useful data.

It also became clear that the World Health Organization (WHO) could have acted more decisively in the first weeks of the pandemic, instead of praising China and deferring to its leadership. The organization still wants to find out how the coronavirus infected humans and negotiated a joint investigation with China over the summer. At the time, the WHO officials were not even allowed to visit Wuhan, and the world was told that WHO and China inked out the details of the upcoming investigation. After two months of silence, we’re now learning that the investigation will indeed proceed, but we might never learn what really happened.

The WHO avoided disclosing the terms it had negotiated with China, The New York Times says in an extensive report that recaps the main coronavirus events of the year when it comes to establishing the source of the virus. The organization told the paper on Friday that it would soon make the documents public, but The Times had already obtained an executive summary of the documents.

According to the parameters that China and WHO established in summer, the investigation into the COVID-19 origin will have two phases. One of them will look for the first patients by reviewing hospital records and interviewing people treated in December. The team of WHO officials will also investigate the wildlife that was sold at the Wuhan market and follow the supply chain. But the first phase will be led by Chinese scientists, and outsiders will review the work remotely.

The second phase will have international experts and their Chinese colleagues working on finding the virus among animal hosts and identifying a potential intermediate.

It’s unclear when the international delegation will visit China, but both China and the WHO appear to be eager to pause until the American election. Joe Biden said he would keep the US in the WHO if he wins. After criticizing the WHO’s initial response, Trump abruptly announced in July that the US would withdraw from the WHO. The criticism for how it handled the early weeks of the health crisis is warranted, and the US isn’t the only nation that voiced its concerns. European Union countries and other states are pushing for a WHO reform. An organization like the WHO is still needed to offer a coordinated response to the pandemic, future threats, and other ongoing health problems. Indeed, despite the early missteps, the WHO did come up with tests ran a massive drug trial, and handled coronavirus vaccine response so far.

We might never really find out how the coronavirus pandemic really started and who patient zero was, even if China is perfectly transparent about its findings. But that sort of information could offer invaluable clues for vaccine work and prepare the world for future coronavirus-like pandemics. The animal that harbored the virus might spawn other pathogens that could one day find their ways to humans.

The closest thing we might have to it is an anecdote The Times relays from the early days of the investigation:

Chinese officials said in January that the outbreak began at the [Wuhan] market. Dr. Gao, [director] at the Chinese CDC, blamed illegal wildlife sales.

In private conversations, he shared a more specific hypothesis. W. Ian Lipkin, a Columbia University virologist, recalled how, over dinner in Beijing in early February, Dr. Gao pulled out his phone and showed him pictures of dead rodents found at the market.

“George Gao was convinced we were going to implicate a cane rat,” Dr. Lipkin said.

Nothing ever came out of that, at least, not officially.

Chris Smith Senior Writer

Chris Smith has been covering consumer electronics ever since the iPhone revolutionized the industry in 2008. When he’s not writing about the most recent tech news for BGR, he brings his entertainment expertise to Marvel’s Cinematic Universe and other blockbuster franchises.

Outside of work, you’ll catch him streaming almost every new movie and TV show release as soon as it's available.

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