The team from WHO is investigating in Wuhan. Scientists probing the origins of the COVID-19 are wrapping up a lengthy investigation in China and have found “important clues” about a Wuhan seafood market’s role in the outbreak.
Peter Daszak, a New York-based zoologist assisting the World Health Organization-sponsored mission, said he anticipates the main findings will be released before his planned Feb. 10 departure. Speaking from the central city of Wuhan, where COVID-19 mushroomed in December 2019, Daszak said the 14-member group worked with experts in China and visited key hot spots and research centres to uncover “some real clues about what happened”.
Investigators want to know how the SARS-CoV-2 virus whose closest known relative came from bats 1,000 miles away spread explosively in Wuhan before causing the worst contagion in more than a century. Daszak said the investigation heralds a turning point in pandemic mitigation.
“It’s the beginning of hopefully a really deep understanding of what happened so we can stop the next one. That’s what this is all about trying to understand why these things emerge so we don’t continually have global economic crashes and horrific mortality while we wait for vaccines. It’s just not tenable future.”
Worldwide, COVID-19 has caused more than 105.7 million infections and 2.3 million deaths. The WHO was asked in May to help “identify the zoonotic source of the virus and the route of introducing to the human population, including the possible role of intermediate hosts.”
The lack of a clear pathway from bats to humans has stoked speculation refuted by Daszak and many other scientists that the virus might have escaped from the Wuhan Institute of Virology, a maximum bio-containment laboratory studying bat-borne COVID-19.
Scientists visited the lab and asked Shi Zhengli, who has collected and analyzed these viruses for more than a decade, about research and the earliest known corona virus cases.
“We really have to cover the whole gamut of key lines of investigation. To be fair to our hosts here in China, they have been doing the same for the last few months. They have been working behind the scenes, digging up the information, looking at it, and getting it ready,” Daszak said.
The work has been “collaborative” with Chinese counterparts helping mission investigators dig deeper for clues, he said.
“We sat down with them every single day and went through information, new data, and then said we want to go to the key places,” the British scientist said. “They asked for a list. We suggested where we should go and the people we should meet. We went to every place on that list and they were really forthcoming with that.”
Daszak is one of 10 independent experts assisting the WHO mission. The agency also has five staff members participating, and the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization and the Paris-based World Organization for Animal Health have two each.
Subsequent research found earlier cases among people not linked to the market, under mining that theory. Investigators looked further and found “important clues” about the market’s role, Daszak said, deciding to elaborate.
He said, “Right now, we are trying to tease everything together. We have looked at these three strands separately. Now we are going to bring it together and see what everything tells us.”
While the food market was shuttered and cleaned almost immediately after cases were recognized, “it’s still pretty intact,” Daszak said. “People left in a hurry and they left evidence of what was going on, and that’s what we looked at.”
Scientists in China who took environmental samples inside the market identified sites where traces of SARS-CoV-2 were detected he said. Investigators also benefited from a greater understanding of COVID-19.