Why working alongside China to uncover the virus’s origin is important

Even as global focus shifted to therapeutics and vaccine trials, it is reassuring that WHO is determined to discover the origin of the virus. But the pace of investigation leaves much to be desired.

In 2003, a World Health Organization team was able to identify the animal source of SARS coronavirus within weeks despite the team landing in China nearly three months after the initial virus outbreak. In the case of MERS coronavirus, the intermediate host was identified more than a year after the first human case was reported. However, in the case of the novel coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2), its source is still unknown even 11 months after WHO reported the first case.

Knowing the natural reservoirs and intermediate hosts and the events that permitted the virus to jump across the species barrier is important to prevent future outbreaks.

Soon after the virus spread to many countries across the world, there was heightened demand to identify the origin of the virus in the Chinese city of Wuhan where the first cluster of cases was reported. Even as global focus shifted to therapeutics and vaccine trials, it is reassuring that the global health body is determined to discover the origin of the virus. But the pace of investigation leaves much to be desired.

Slow progress

Efforts to study the origin began in February but it was only in early August that the WHO completed the mission to lay the groundwork for joint efforts to identify the virus’s origin; the two-member WHO team did not visit Wuhan, the epicentre of the disease outbreak. It was only in the third week of October that China began early studies for the two-phase investigation.

In the first phase, China will undertake short-term studies to better understand how the virus might have started circulating in Wuhan. Longer-term studies will be developed based on the results of the first phase. It is only then then an international team led by the WHO can be deployed in China to collaborate with Chinese scientists to trace the origin of the virus.

China’s reluctance to investigate

If China refused to alert WHO of the novel virus outbreak soon after a cluster of cases was reported in Wuhan, its reluctance to quickly and earnestly investigate the source of the virus can partly be explained by U.S. President Donald Trump’s attempt to politicise the issue. The reluctance has only increased after mounting international ire over its lackadaisical attitude in reporting the outbreak and the huge economic cost of the pandemic globally.

There is strong evidence that the virus originated in bats and probably spread to humans through an intermediate species. One way to find the intermediate host is to know the susceptibility of different animal species. Already many animals including cats have been found susceptible to the virus in the lab and outside. With the virus spread so widely in people, zeroing in on the intermediate host becomes increasingly difficult even if the virus is found as the possibility of humans having spread the virus to animals cannot be ruled out.

Hence a multipronged approach with particular emphasis on investigating wildlife farms in China becomes important. This highlights the importance of working alongside China to uncover the virus’s origin.

Published in The Hindu on December 2, 2020