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One year later, do we really know the origin of COVID-19?

by Cédric Ayisa - December 04, 2020   982 Views   4 min
One year later, do we really know the origin of COVID-19?

Claim

The origin of the coronavirus remains a mystery and experts are still looking for answers

Verdict

Accurate (supported by evidence and facts; acceptable margin of error)

On November 25, 2020, Canadian media outlet Global News published an article suggesting that the origin of the coronavirus is a mystery and that researchers are still trying to find an answer. This claim is accurate.

While the number of cases and deaths continues to rise in some countries or regions of the world and researchers and nations continue to race to find vaccines against SARS-CoV-2, the very origins of the virus are still unknown. Here, the word "origin" does not refer to where the virus was first identified, but rather where it came from. In the case of COVID-19, many of the early cases were directly linked to a seafood market in the Chinese city of Wuhan, where seafood, wild and farmed animals were sold.

Many of the early patients were either stall owners, market employees, or regular visitors to the market. Environmental samples taken from this site in December 2019 were positive for SARS-CoV-2. However, in the absence of analytical epidemiological data in market personnel, without detailed mapping of market exposure factors during this period, the type of products and animals sold, the proportion of animals, the products available for testing, and other potential risk factors such as travel and occupation, interpretation of laboratory sample results remains difficult. This complicates the process to determine the actual role of the Huanan market in the spread of the virus.

At the outset...

Initial analyses suggested that the virus was of natural animal origin and had not been handled or created in a laboratory. The genomic characteristics of SARS CoV-2 allowed researchers to conclude that SARS CoV-2 is not a laboratory construct. If it were a manufactured virus, its genomic sequence would show a mixture of known elements, which is not the case.

Experts suggested that SARS-CoV-2 could originate from bats, a major and known reservoir for coronaviruses. However, according to their explanation, since contact between humans and bats is relatively rare, it is more likely that the transmission of the virus to humans occurred via another animal species, one more likely to be handled by humans. This intermediate animal host or zoonotic source could be a domestic animal, a wild animal or a domesticated wild animal, yet to be identified.

What is known today about the origin of COVID-19?

As WHO explains, over the past decades, some of the most common and deadly human diseases have been found to be caused by bacteria or viruses of animal origin. The Organization estimates that 70% of emerging and re-emerging pathogens originate from animals. Moreover, trying to understand the emergence of a new virus in humans is a complex task, as proven by COVID-19.

To identify animal species as potential intermediate hosts, experts have performed or are performing tests on animals with ACE2 (protein) receptors, which are the main entry points for SARS-CoV-2 in humans. Of the more than 500 animal species identified, cats, ferrets, hamsters and mink have shown increased susceptibility to infection. These results demonstrated that animal species that are often in contact with humans can serve as intermediate hosts in the transmission of the disease to humans. One example to be mentioned here is mink in Denmark, in which researchers found a mutant version of SARS-CoV-2. This led not only to the confinement of the northern part of the country for several weeks, but also to the culling of millions of animals.

Overall, according to WHO: "Wery little is currently known about how, where and when the virus started circulating in Wuhan. Preliminary studies have not shown credible leads to narrow the field of research, so studies will focus on developing comprehensive study designs to help generate hypotheses on how the epidemic may have started in Wuhan. We can therefore say that the Global News article is accurate: the origin of SARS-CoV-2 remains a mystery, for now.

What is WHO doing?

Already in February, WHO organized an international meeting of experts to set up research initiatives, including the origin of COVID-19 (WHO, 2020a). In addition to WHO, the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE) and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) agreed at the 73rd World Health Assembly to strengthen their efforts to trace the animal origin of the virus, its route of transmission to humans and the possible role of the intermediate host (which is still unknown).

Based on the recommendations of the 73rd World Health Assembly, WHO, in collaboration with the Government of China, is establishing an international multidisciplinary team to design, support and conduct a series of studies that will contribute to research work on the origin of the virus.

"We want to know the origin and we will do everything we can to find it," explained WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus at a conference (starting at 13:25) on 30 November 2020.

The importance of knowing the origin of the virus

According to WHO, "Understanding how an epidemic began is essential to prevent further introductions of viruses into the human population".

Results on the origin of the virus will also help to understand the dynamics of the beginning of the epidemic, which could help to improve the response of health authorities. Understanding the origin of the virus may also contribute to the development of therapies and vaccines. Finally, from a social perspective, knowing the origin of the virus could help counter misinformation and hate speech online that often result in verbal and physical attacks against minority groups offline.

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  Claim

Global News

Organization
The origin of the coronavirus remains a mystery and experts are still looking for answers

Verdict:

Accurate (supported by evidence and facts; acceptable margin of error)

 December 04, 2020


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