The mystery of covid origins continues to provoke speculation and tension


Color scanning electron micrograph of a (blue) cell heavily infected with SARS-CoV-2 virus particles (red), isolated from a patient sample. Image captured at the NIAID Integrated Research Facility (IRF) in Fort Detrick, Maryland. Credit: NIAID

The SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus has spread around the world, killing millions of people and stopping economies. But where exactly did it come from?

With few clear answers, speculation has persisted since the beginning of the pandemic, generating misinformation and as well as strong diplomatic tensions.

Here’s a look at the clues scientists are following — and others who have rejected — to try to determine how made the leap to humans. They say finding the right answer could help prevent the next pandemic.


Bats were initially identified as the probable origin of COVID-19.

But scientists think the virus would have passed from winged mammals to another species before reaching humans.

The pangolin was noted as a suspect because it was one of the wildlife species sold at the market in the Chinese city of Wuhan, which was associated with most of the first known cases of coronavirus.

However, uncertainty about this persists.

A joint investigation by World Health Organization (WHO) experts and Chinese scientists who visited Wuhan in January 2021 was supposed to help shed light on the theory, but did not find the missing link.

Other animal intermediaries have been suspected, including minks and ferret badgers.

Made by man

Another idea that came up at the beginning was that the virus did not reach people through animals, but was designed.

This idea often went hand in hand with the theory that the virus had leaked from a safe biolab in Wuhan. The idea spread widely online with the help of former U.S. President Donald Trump.

One version of this theory alleges that the virus was created and spread on purpose.

Some publications on the Internet have claimed that the existence of coronavirus patents offer “evidence” for this, although they do point to patented research on other coronaviruses.

The idea that the other pathogens had spliced ​​into the virus has also proven popular, although scientists say this genetic manipulation would be visible in the SARS-CoV-2 genome.

Professor Olivier Schwartz of the Pasteur Institute calls these ideas “completely unfounded.”

Laboratory escape

The idea that a virus of natural origin – for example, taken from a bat – could have escaped from a safe biolab has been increasingly considered in recent weeks.

The WHO team that traveled to Wuhan in January said in its report that the transmission of animals was “very likely very likely,” while leaking from a laboratory was “extremely unlikely.”

But WHO chief Tedros Ghebreyesus has said the laboratory leak theory “requires further research, possibly with additional missions involving specialist experts, which I am willing to deploy.”

In May, a group of 18 experts echoed the sentiment in an editorial that appeared in the journal Science.

“We need to take the assumptions about natural and laboratory spills seriously until we have enough data,” they wrote.

“Adequate research must be transparent, objective, data-driven, including extensive experience, subject to independent oversight and responsibly managed to minimize the impact of conflicts of interest.”

Citing a U.S. intelligence report, the Wall Street Journal reported in May that three workers at the Wuhan Institute of Virology were hospitalized with a seasonal illness in November 2019, a month before Beijing revealed the ‘existence of a mysterious outbreak of pneumonia.

Days later, U.S. President Joe Biden gave intelligence agencies three months to inform him whether the COVID-19 virus first emerged in China from an animal source or a laboratory accident.

Experts point out, however, that the renewed interest in this theory stems from a lack of information, not new evidence.

“There is no new fact that has moved the needle in one way or another,” Schwartz tells the Institut Pasteur, noting that the theory of natural transmission remains the most plausible explanation. “.

Diplomacy and geopolitics

Responsibility for the pandemic has prompted Beijing and Washington to want to signal to each other.

As the host country of the first cases identified in the world, China has been under intense control.

Western countries have accused him of lacking transparency, both in his initial response and in his cooperation with research into the origins of the virus.

Tensions between the United States and China were already high in the spring of 2020, when Trump raised the theory of laboratory leaks, a charge that Beijing responded to with its own hypothesis that the virus came from a northern laboratory. -American.

Last week, WHO’s chief of emergency, Michel Ryan, told reporters that pointing fingers did not help advance investigations.

“This whole process is being poisoned by politics,” he warned.

The WHO says understanding how an epidemic began is “essential to prevent further introductions to the human population.”

But late last year, even before his team embarked in Wuhan, the organization warned that the process of tracking how an animal disease jumped “is an enigma that can take years to resolve “.

“The introduction of a new virus into the human population is one of the biggest mysteries an epidemiologist can expect to unravel,” he said.

China rejects disease claim at Wuhan lab in late 2019

© 2021 AFP

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