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'Last chance to know COVID origins': WHO urges China for data as new probe group formed

Chinese testing data for antibodies in Wuhan in 2019 will be "absolutely critical"

A logo is pictured outside a building of the World Health Organisation in Geneva, Switzerland | Reuters World Health Organisation in Geneva, Switzerland | Reuters

The World Health Organisation (WHO) on Wednesday said that its newly formed advisory group on dangerous pathogens may be "the last chance" to determine the origins of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, and urged China to provide data from early cases, news agency Reuters reported. The organisation was referring to the 26-member Scientific Advisory Group on the Origins of Novel Pathogens (SAGO), which includes Marion Koopmans, Thea Fischer, Hung Nguyen and Chinese animal health expert Yang Yungui, all of whom were part of an earlier probe in Wuhan. 

The first probe into the origins of the virus, conducted in January, had hit a brick wall. After collecting several samples of the virus, the WHO team concluded that the virus could not have been the result of a laboratory leak. The team also said that the virus was transmitted to humans from bats, but via an animal. The team had also said that the virus could have originated outside the Hunan seafood market, the wet market widely considered to be the origin of the pandemic.

Maria van Kerkhove, WHO technical lead on COVID-19, stated that the reported Chinese testing data for antibodies in Wuhan residents in 2019 will be "absolutely critical" to understanding the virus's origins. 

Is the pandemic the result of a lab leak?

An editorial in Science magazine, co-authored by WHO chief Tedros Adhanom and Kerkhove, had stated categorically that a lab accident cannot be ruled out. "Detailed investigations of the earliest known and suspected cases in China prior to December 2019 are still urgently needed, including analyses of stored blood samples from 2019 in Wuhan and surrounding areas and retrospective searches of hospital and mortality data for earlier cases," according to the editorial. "As well, laboratory hypotheses must be examined carefully, with a focus on labs in the location where the first reports of human infections emerged in Wuhan. A lab accident cannot be ruled out until there is sufficient evidence to do so and those results are openly shared."

There are arguments both for and against a possible lab leak. Some recent studies have claimed that coronavirus as a lab leak is an impossibility, and that the virus needs a bridge host. Studies have quoted the example of Hendra virus, which has flying foxes as its reservoir, spilling over to horses with some frequency, which then amplify the virus as a bridge host to infect humans.

A lot of studies were conducted by US intel agencies into the pandemic. However, they have failed to reach any firm conclusion on the exact origin of COVID-19, and is split on whether it leaked from a lab in China or emerged in nature, even though it does not believe the virus was developed as a biological weapon. The director of US National Intelligence in a report had stated that SARS-CoV-2 probably emerged and infected humans through an initial small-scale exposure that occurred no later than November 2019 with the first known cluster of COVID-19 cases arising in Wuhan, China in December 2019.

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