WHO team says COVID-19 origins study has stalled, window of opportunity is closing

Uncovering the origins of COVID-19 requires accelerating the next phase of the investigation.

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Members of the WHO-China study visited Wuhan in early 2021, trying to piece together how the pandemic began.


Members of the World Health Organization team sent to Wuhan, China, to piece together the origin story of the coronavirus say the search is now at a "critical juncture" and follow-up studies should be expedited "while there is still time."

Writing in a lengthy commentary in the science journal Nature on Wednesday, 11 members of the WHO delegation that visited Wuhan in early 2021 call for phase 2 studies into the origins of SARS-CoV-2 to be fast-tracked. They sound a warning: Time is running out to perform some of the critical biological tracing of humans and animals infected during the earliest days of the pandemic. 

"SARS-CoV-2 antibodies wane, so collecting further samples and testing people who might have been exposed before December 2019 will yield diminishing returns," the team of 11 co-authors write. 

The international members of the WHO delegation, led by food safety expert Peter Ben Embarek, traveled to the central Chinese city of Wuhan in January and February, visiting wet markets and laboratories in an attempt to reconstruct the earliest days of the pandemic. 

Their 28-day probe in the Chinese city resulted in a 120-page report, published in March, which reached the conclusion the virus was "likely to very likely" of natural origin: It jumped from an animal host, like a bat, to an intermediate species, before establishing itself in humans. 

But another theory, geopolitically charged and highly divisive, has gained significant traction in the press in 2021. It posits that the virus may have accidentally leaked from a lab in Wuhan. The WHO-China report deemed the possibility of a lab-based origin "extremely unlikely," but, two months after it was published, another group of scientists wrote in the journal Science that the report didn't give balanced consideration to the theory.

No ironclad evidence has been found to prove either theory, but the majority of scientists have remained steadfast in their beliefs the virus originated in nature. The commentary piece doesn't attempt to reconcile the two theories or provide any new evidence, but it does recap the Wuhan mission and touch on some of the new studies that have emerged since the team published the WHO-China report. 

One of the key pieces of new data, according to the commentary, includes a study that examined the inventory of live mammals for sale at Wuhan wet markets, including the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market, which was suspected of playing a key role in the early spread of the coronavirus. The study, published in June, revealed that revealed live animals that could theoretically harbor coronaviruses were being handled in Wuhan markets prior to December 2019. 

The piece maintains that there is no data supporting the lab leak hypothesis and reiterates that the mission to Wuhan wasn't originally intended to investigate a lab leak scenario. However, the team writes that it was "too important to ignore" and the members "prioritized understanding of the role of labs in the early days of the epidemic, the overall lab biosafety procedures and potential staff illness or absenteeism owing to a respiratory disease in the late part of 2019."

The commentary also contends that some of the discourse around the WHO-China study may originate from "miscommunication and misunderstanding about the nature of the work" and that referring to this study as an "investigation" may have heightened expectations the report would definitively rule the competing origin theories in or out.

Corresponding authors Dominic Dwyer and Marion Koopmans didn't respond to requests for comment.     

Declassified dispute

The commentary in Nature comes just a day after a classified report from the intelligence community was handed to US President Joe Biden. Elements of that report are expected to be declassified and released this week but it has been suggested that the report provides no definitive conclusion on where COVID-19 originated

It is a delicate geopolitical battle and the contentious debate and speculation over the pandemic's origins have long rankled Beijing. Ahead of release of Biden's intelligence report, state-run media outlet The Global Times claimed that the "US desperately wants to frame China" and suggested that the purpose isn't to unearth the origins of the virus but to "offset China's rising international influence."

Wednesday's commentary highlights a need to move forward with phase 2 of the study and suggests there is a willingness from both the WHO team and the Chinese team to do so. Yet there remains a lack of transparency and data-sharing from China that will be critical to how that process moves along. As the team writes, the initial study was meant to be "the first step" in the process of hunting down the origin of the coronavirus. The process has stalled. 

Answering one of the pandemic's most complex and difficult questions requires a kickstart, but the political sensitivity of the investigation makes it unlikely this "call to action" will, alone, be enough to do so.