W.H.O. and Critics Look at What’s Next to Investigate Virus Origins
The joint international and Chinese mission, organized by the World Health Organization on the Origins of Covid, released its report last week, which indicated that more studies are needed on almost every topic covered. What kind of study and who will do it is the question.
The report suggested following several lines of investigation that focused on the likely origin of the coronavirus in bats. It concluded that the most likely route to human beings was through an intermediate animal, possibly on a game farm. Future efforts could include blood bank exams to look for cases that may have appeared before December 2019 and identify potential sources of animal virus on wildlife farms, the team suggested.
Critics of the report have been looking more for the possibility that a laboratory incident in Wuhan could have resulted in the human’s first infection. A loosely organized group of scientists and others who met virtually to discuss the possibility of a laboratory leak released an open letter this week describing various options for a thorough investigation. It called for further action, arguing that “critical records and biological samples that could provide essential insight into the causes of pandemics remain inaccessible”.
Much of the letter recalls an earlier publication by the same group detailing what was viewed as a failure of the WHO mission. This second letter is more specific as to the type of future inquiries it proposes.
The group is looking for a new study involving biosafety and biosafety experts. This could involve the WHO or a separate multinational effort to put in place another process to study the origins of the pandemic and its origins in China.
Jamie Metzl, author, senior fellow of the Atlantic Council, a think tank on international politics and a signatory to the Scientists’ Letter, said renewed calls for a deeper investigation reflected the need for greater surveillance and containment of the viruses being tested in laboratories across the world the whole world.
“This is not about meeting with China,” said Metzl.
Mr Metzl’s group were among those disappointed with the report released last week, as the possibility of a leak was immediately denied by the Wuhan Institute of Virology, which was described as extremely unlikely.
The head of WHO, Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus later said that the mission’s investigation of a possible laboratory leak was not “extensive enough”.
He continued, “Although the team has concluded that a laboratory leak is the least likely hypothesis, it will require further investigation, possibly with additional missions involving specialists I am willing to deploy.”
From the beginning, the mission’s role has never been to investigate safety or procedures at the Wuhan laboratory, which has had extensive bat coronavirus research in recent years, or any other laboratory in China.
What WHO member states approved was a joint scientific effort by a group of international experts and their Chinese counterparts to study the origins of the pandemic.
The team of international scientists had neither the authority nor the mandate to act independently of their Chinese counterparts. As the member states dictated, every word in the report had to be approved by both the Chinese and international groups. They had 28 days in China, two weeks of which were quarantined in a hotel.
The result, which includes a comprehensive review of the existing scientific literature, provides evidence of a general understanding of the origins of the virus, meaning that a bat coronavirus most likely passed it on to another animal and then to humans. This happened with the previous coronavirus epidemics of SARS and MERS.
Similar viruses have been found in bats and psoriasis, although they are not close enough to be transmitted to humans. The suspicion of a laboratory leak is based on the idea that laboratories in China are collecting and studying these viruses and that Chinese scientists lie about their research or do not know what is going on in their facilities.
Shi Zhengli, the director of the Wuhan Institute of Virology, and other internationally known Chinese scientists said SARS-CoV-2 was not present in any Chinese laboratory. There was also no virus close enough to make a jump to the people, they said.
April 7, 2021, 11:22 p.m. ET
Some experts who have not signed an open letter criticizing WHO believe that a different type of investigation is needed.
Dr. Daniel Lucey, an infectious disease expert at Georgetown University, said he thought the virus came from nature based on the genetics of the virus and the many established precedents of animal-to-human disease spillages. But he also said that he believed it possible it was present in a laboratory in Wuhan and escaped to start the pandemic, perhaps because someone was accidentally infected.
Overall, on the question of viral origin, he said, “I’m really not convinced it came from a laboratory, but there isn’t enough research.”
He said he thought the report was a “grand slam home run” for China. What China wants, he said, “is to create reasonable doubts that the virus started in China.” And he said the report suggests it’s possible the virus originated from other countries in Southeast Asia and maybe even Europe.
Jesse Bloom, an evolutionary biologist at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle who did not sign either of the two critical letters, said he saw no evidence in the report to dismiss the possible role of a laboratory.
“I think the natural causes of the pandemic are entirely plausible,” said Dr. Bloom, however, added that he was Dr. Tedros agreed that the assessment of a laboratory accident was not comprehensive enough and required further investigation.
Aside from the laboratory, the report mentions several promising directions for future study, including tracking the path of animal products or animals that the virus may have brought to markets in Wuhan.
Peter Daszak, the leader of the EcoHealth Alliance, condemned by laboratory leak theorists for his previous work with the Wuhan Institute of Virology, said the results so far indicated wildlife farms as the most likely places for animal-to-human transmission. There are many such farms in China and Southeast Asia, and the animals on them, such as raccoon dogs and civets, have contact with bats and humans. Thousands of tests on animals and animal samples from China, including in seafood and other markets, have shown no evidence of the presence of SARS-CoV-2, according to the WHO report.
The report also mentions that both minks and cats are easily susceptible to infection, presumably from humans, and are potential reservoirs of the virus. Cats have not been shown to pass the virus to humans, but minks have. China has a thriving mink industry, but has not reported any mink farm infections to WHO
Dr. Lucey said he referred to the lack of information on China’s mink farms as “The Silence of the Mink”.
In terms of human studies, the report suggests that testing blood in blood bank donations made from September to December 2019 could be very useful. The first recorded outbreak occurred in December 2019 in the Huanan market in Wuhan.
Marion Koopmans, a Dutch virologist at Erasmus University in Rotterdam, said the WHO mission had asked the Wuhan blood banking system to hold on to the blood donation from that time. That has been agreed to, she said, and now the Chinese are seeking permission to test the blood for antibodies to the virus, which could help pinpoint when the virus first appeared in humans. If such studies were expanded, this could also help with localization.
Dr. Koopmans said she hopes studies on blood donation could be expanded to other provinces and regions outside of China. “My perfect study design would be for you to include regions in Italy and France where there were possible indications of the presence of the virus prior to December,” she said.
She said standardized tests should be done for all regions in question. This in turn could indicate isolated pockets with early onset of the virus. Wildlife testing in such areas can be productive.
Dr. Koopmans defended the WHO team’s mission, saying it was always intended to conduct a scientific study with Chinese colleagues. If an investigation is the target, she said, “You have to do an inspection or something, but that’s not a scientific study.”
The critics agree on this. One of the most telling sections of the letter from WHO critics deals with the composition of a team studying Chinese laboratories. According to the letter, if the ground rules are rewritten for a second mission, WHO should “ensure that the international team of experts, including biosafety and biosecurity experts, bio-data analysts and experienced forensic investigators, have more extensive skills.”
Near the end of the report, to discuss what should be done to learn more about the likelihood of a laboratory incident, the report recommends: “Regular administrative and internal reviews of high-level biosafety laboratories around the world. Follow up on new findings on possible laboratory leaks. “
Mr Metzl said he could no longer agree, saying that such a review should include U.S. laboratories in the future. But the pandemic is of the utmost urgency and he wants to start China immediately. Even so, he and the other signatories of the two letters are very concerned about virus research around the world.
While many virologists and disease specialists want to collect and study viruses in order to learn more and be better prepared for outbreaks, Metzl and others wanted more restrictions on virus studies.
“It makes perfect sense to have a global regulatory system in place to monitor aggressive work with dangerous or deadly pathogens everywhere,” he said