WHO Expert Expects Covid-19’s Origins to Be Found Within a Few Years

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WHO Expert Expects Covid-19’s Origins to Be Found Within a Few Years

Scientists will likely discover the origin of the Covid-19 pandemic within the next few years, after they pursue and zero in on an animal source for the new coronavirus, a member of an international team of investigators led by the World Health Organization said Wednesday.

“I’m convinced we’re going to find out fairly soon,” said Peter Daszak, a member of the WHO-led team and a zoologist who specializes in hunting for viral origins in animals. “Within the next few years we’ll have real significant data on where this came from and how it emerged.”

Dr. Daszak was one of three team members who spoke at a webinar organized by Chatham House, an international-affairs think tank in London, about their recent monthlong trip to the Chinese city of Wuhan. The Huanan market there was the site of the first known outbreak of the coronavirus in December 2019.

International team members learned on the trip that meat from animals known to carry coronaviruses belonging to the same family as the pandemic virus were sold in the Huanan market, Dr. Daszak said.

A view of the Huanan seafood market on Feb. 9, in Wuhan, that was the site of the first known outbreak of the coronavirus in December 2019.

Photo: Getty Images

Members of the mission have expressed frustration with the limited information Chinese authorities handed over to the investigators, particularly regarding early Covid-19 cases that could help determine whether the virus was circulating before the first cases were confirmed.

The WHO investigation has stirred political tensions between the U.S. and China, with the Biden administration demanding more transparency from the probe into the origins of a pandemic that has killed more than two million people.

The team of international and Chinese experts is expected to release a report next week describing the findings from its investigation and recommendations for further study. The administration has said that it is waiting to scrutinize the mission’s final report.

The team’s leading hypothesis, Dr. Daszak said Wednesday, is that a bat or other wildlife species carrying a progenitor, or closely related virus, infected a farm animal or a person, who then carried it to the Huanan market.

“I believe that’s the most likely scenario, and I think most people on both sides of the mission felt the same way,” he said.

Investigating the Origin of Covid-19

Marion Koopmans, a Dutch virologist, reiterated that the team considered it “extremely unlikely” that the virus could have escaped from a laboratory, saying it didn’t have evidence, but she said the scientists would review any evidence suggesting a lab link.

The team spent a month meeting with Chinese scientists and making site visits, completing their visit last month. Covid-19 restrictions meant they spent their first two weeks quarantined in hotel rooms. A new outbreak then forced more restrictions, said Dr. Koopmans, who is head of the Erasmus MC department of viroscience.

“The second phase of our trip after the hotel quarantine, we still could not freely go about,” she said. “That was a disappointment for all of us.”

She said she believes that investigations into the origins of new diseases should be conducted routinely in an epidemic or a pandemic. “This really needs to happen and should continue to happen and should become normal,” she said.

The World Health Organization’s mission to Wuhan said the coronavirus most likely spread naturally to humans through an animal. WSJ’s Jeremy Page reports on what scientists learned during their weekslong investigation. Photo: Thomas Peter/Reuters

Chinese scientists have tested tens of thousands of animals across the country, including more than 1,000 bats in Hubei province, for evidence of the virus, said Dr. Daszak, who is president of EcoHealth Alliance, a nonprofit organization in New York.

“There was a conduit from Wuhan to the provinces in South China, where the closest relative viruses to SARS-CoV-2 are found in bats,” Dr. Daszak said, referring to the virus that causes Covid-19. A bat virus could have spilled over into people or animals there, and then it could have been transported to the market, he said.

“That’s a really important clue,” he said, adding that those findings should be followed up “pretty rapidly.”

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