The World Health Organization said on Thursday that its latest research into the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic has not led to conclusive conclusions, largely due to a lack of data from China. – The longer it takes, the more difficult it becomes – said WHO representative, American epidemiologist Maria Van Kerkhove at a press conference.
In a report, released on Thursday, the WHO expert team said all available data indicated that the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus, which causes COVID-19, originated in animals, possibly bats. However, it is still uncertain how it first passed on to humans.
Researchers from this UN agency came to a similar conclusion in 2021, after a trip to China. At that time, the Chinese authorities also restricted access to information, which was complained about by mission participants. It was in China that the first cases of infection were recorded – officially in December 2019.
According to the latest report, WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus wrote to the Chinese government twice in February this year, asking for more information. Experts admitted that in response, China provided some data, but still insufficient.
Emphasis on researching the sources of future epidemics
The report is the first of several expected from a panel called the Scientific Advisory Group for the Origins of Novel Pathogens (SAGO). – The longer it takes, the more difficult it becomes – this is how Maria Van Kerkhove, an American epidemiologist working at the SAGO secretariat, spoke about the problems encountered by researchers at a press conference.
The researcher added that the WHO will support all efforts to better understand how the pandemic began. “We owe it to ourselves, we owe it to the millions of people who died and the billions of people who got infected,” she said.
The report said that no new information was obtained to support the hypothesis that SARS-CoV-2 was transmitted to humans as a result of a laboratory incident, but “it is still important to consider all reasonable scientific data.” A footnote to the document stated that panel members from Brazil, China and Russia disagreed with the assessment that further research was needed into the hypothesis of “laboratory” origin of the disease.
A report in 2021 called a virus leak from the lab “highly unlikely” and suggested the most likely theory was transmission of the virus from animals. In a later American intelligence report both theories were considered plausible.
Lessons for the future
When the panel was convened in October, WHO’s chief crisis officer Mike Ryan said it was “the best chance … maybe our last chance” to understand the origins of the coronavirus.
The WHO emphasizes that the main goal of the panel is not so much to study the origins of COVID-19 as to focus on developing a better way to study the sources of future epidemics. Already in the present report, we provide guidance on how to identify the sources of possible future outbreaks.
Jean-Claude Manuguerra, SAGO co-chairman, said monkey pox is “an illustration of how badly we need such a global framework”.
WHO under fire
The Reuters agency estimates that the results of the studies presented by the WHO are likely to only increase doubts as to whether it will be possible to determine how and where the virus appeared.
According to Reuters, they will also be a stimulus to intensify demands to reform WHO and its procedures for dealing with crisis situations.
Main photo source: PAP / EPA / MARK R. CRISTINO