The unanswered questions around COVID-19’s origins

As the world nears two years after the first reported cases of COVID-19 in Wuhan, China, there’s still a lot more we don’t know about SARS-CoV-2’s origins than we do know.

Why it matters: Accurately determining the causes of COVID-19 will go a long way toward informing what can and should be done to prevent the next pandemic.

Driving the news: Earlier this week, the Wall Street Journal reported the WHO is reviving its stalled investigation into the origins of COVID-19, while a separate academic task force looking into the same question was disbanded over concerns about bias.

At this point, there is no smoking gun in favor of either of the two main theories — that SARS-CoV-2 emerged in animals before spreading to people, or that it originated in lab work done at the Wuhan Institute of Virology — but plenty of circumstantial evidence for both.

What they’re saying: On Thursday morning, Science magazine convened a rare roundtable featuring scientists from both sides of the debate.

A major problem is “we can’t really say how the virus got to Wuhan,” said Jesse Bloom, an evolutionary biologist at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center, adding there is “not a high, or any natural prevalence of viruses closely related to SARS-CoV-2 in Wuhan.”That fact — and that the Wuhan Institute of Virology was working with samples taken from bats that have a high risk of harboring COVID-like coronaviruses — “is why I continue to think a lab leak is highly probable,” Bloom said.

The other side: Michael Worobey, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Arizona, argued there were “so many more opportunities for non-research-connected activity to bring these viruses” to Wuhan, such as via China’s robust wildlife trade.

The political disputes between the U.S. and China have also made it hard to fairly judge the origins, argued Linfa Wang, a professor at Duke-NUS Medical School in Singapore. “You’re guilty because you’re in Wuhan,” he said. “That’s it.”

The bottom line: With time running out to gather more evidence — and the Chinese government stonewalling further efforts — the chance of finding a definitive answer is dwindling.

But one lesson for the future is clear, as Bloom put it: “We need more transparency.”

Share this post

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin
Share on whatsapp
Share on print
Share on email
Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin
Share on whatsapp
Share on print
Share on email