Scientists charged with the task to study COVID-19 origin by the UN warned on August 25, 2021, that the search for the origin of the COVID-19 pandemic that killed millions and crippled economies is at a standstill even as time is running out.
An initial report made by the team of independent, international experts sent to China by the World Health Organisation in January 2021 concluded that it was most likely that the SARS-CoV-2 virus jumped from the bats to humans via an intermediate animal.
The statement by the WHO experts has come less than two weeks after the global health agency, in a bid to revive the probe, had urged China to hand over the information on the earliest COVID-19 cases.
What WHO experts are concerned about?
The hypothesis that the COVID-19 virus had somehow leaked from a lab, like the specialized virology laboratory in Wuhan, was deemed extremely unlikely in the report.
However, in a comment in the journal Nature, 11 of the 17 scientists on that mission had said that it was only intended as a first step in a process that has stalled.
They wrote that the search for the origins of SARS-CoV-2 is at a critical juncture and the window of opportunity for conducting the crucial enquiry is closing fast.
Tracing the biological trail back to the earliest pockets of COVID-19, which had surfaced in Wuhan in late 2019, has become more difficult as the evidence disappears or becomes more corrupted.
China pushes back as WHO demands ‘second phase’ of research
As the World Health Organization urged China to hand over the details of the earliest COVID-19 cases in the country, China pushed back against the request.
As per the WHO experts, the data demanded by WHO should include COVID data for 174 infections that were identified in December 2019 and that China failed to share during the initial investigation.
The investigators further mentioned that it was agreed at the time that the second phase of research will fill in this gap.
However, China pushed back against the request by WHO earlier in August 2021. The country said that the January investigation should suffice and that the calls for further data were motivated by politics, and not science.
Why WHO is encouraging second phase of research in COVID origin?
WHO has highlighted that the report by the international experts, which was published in March 2021 in coordination with their Chinese counterpart, had laid out a number of studies that should be conducted and had insisted that there was no reason to wait.
WHO Chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said that the agency has encouraged all the parties to pursue those studies.
Meanwhile, other WHO experts stressed that there was no need to wait for another international mission to China before delving into many further studies needed there. They pointed out that there were many capable Chinese scientists who can do the work.
Michael Ryan, WHO emergencies director agreed that there is no impediment right now for those studies to go ahead. In fact, many Chinese colleagues have reported that those studies are underway in China and that WHO looks forward to receiving data and reports.
Lab leak or animal transmission of COVID virus: No conclusion yet
China has especially restrained at the suggestion that the COVID-19 virus might have escaped from the Wuhan Virology Lab.
Recently, US Intelligence Agencies had presented President Biden with a report looking at both the animal transmission and ‘lab-leak’ hypotheses. The findings in the report were described as inconclusive. A piece in The Nature has also noted that the current data does not support the lab-leak scenario.
Study into COVID origin: What are the scientists suggesting?
Scientists and researchers have been emphasizing the need to trace the earliest cases of COVID-19 through disease reporting and antibody surveys, inside and outside China.
They have also called for the further investigation of wild bats and wildlife farms.
The scientists have said that as SARS-CoV-2 antibodies wane, collecting further samples and testing people who might have been exposed before December 2019 will yield diminishing returns.
They further added that many of the wildlife farms of interest for study have been closed and their livestock killed.