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China shuts the door on investigation into Covid-19 origins7 min read

July 28, 2021 5 min read

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China shuts the door on investigation into Covid-19 origins7 min read

Reading Time: 5 minutes

Where did the Covid-19 virus come from? Was it from bats? Pangolins? A laboratory leak in Wuhan, China? No one knows for sure! Close to two years since the dreaded virus entered our lives, details of its origins are still murky.

Credit: Giphy

Scientists and experts are still trying to figure this out. In the latest effort to get to the bottom of this mystery, the World Health Organisation (WHO) wrote a proposal to China, asking the country to go back to the place where the virus first started to spread from.

Owliver’s Obscure Observations: Covid19 was first found in three people in Wuhan, China. Wuhan is the capital of Hubei Province.

Zeng Yixin. Credit: AP

China, however, rejected the proposal, saying researchers should instead make a priority of the “very likely” possibility that the virus originated in animals. China has requested that other countries around the world be part of this investigation too.

Zeng Yixin, the vice minister of China’s National Health Commission, said he was surprised that the WHO had proposed the team return to places in Wuhan that they visited earlier this year. He said that the theory that the virus leaked from a lab has also already been investigated, and called this effort “not scientific”.

What does the WHO say?

WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus proposed that the second stage of the investigation into the origins of coronavirus should include further studies in China and its labs.

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. Credit: AP

Finding the origins of this virus is a scientific exercise that must be kept free from politics…. For that to happen, we expect China to support this next phase of the scientific process by sharing all relevant data in a spirit of transparency

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO
Huanan Seafood market. Credit: Getty Images

The WHO has been under pressure to step up its investigation into the origin of the virus. Its team of international and Chinese experts made their first visit to Wuhan in mid-January, more than a year after the first cases were detected. They spent four weeks in the city, visiting key sites including the now-closed Huanan Seafood market, and two research labs that worked with viruses from bats – a suspected animal host for Covid-19.

Liang Wannian, who leads the Chinese scientists in the WHO team, stressed the need to focus on animal-to-human transmission and look not only at bats, but other species including pangolins, mink and ferrets.

He also stressed that the place where the first cases were detected might not be where the disease had actually originated.

What did they find?

In March, the team said the virus had probably been transmitted from bats to humans through another animal, but needed a deeper investigation. It also did not rule out the possibility that the virus did, in fact, get leaked from a lab.

Why do some suspect a lab leak?

To some scientists, the release of a dangerous pathogen – any organism that can produce a disease – via a careless lab worker is a possible theory hypothesis for how the pandemic started. The Wuhan lab is not far from the Huanan Seafood Market, which early in the health crisis was cited as the most likely place where animal-to-human transmission of the virus may have taken place.

The market was also the site of the first known Covid-19 superspreader event. Their closeness raised immediate suspicions. There was also a lack of evidence back then to identify any wildlife that was infected by the same virus.

Researchers were studying diseases passed on by bats at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, which is why it is believed to be the birthplace of the pandemic. Credit: AP

Although the Wuhan lab’s scientists have said they had no trace of SARS-CoV-2 (the name of the virus that causes Covid-19) in their inventory at the time, 24 researchers sent a letter to the WHO urging for an investigation.

Bats spread it?

Photo: Harvard University

Many scientists believe a natural origin is more likely and say there isn’t enough evidence to prove the virus came from a lab. Natural origin here refers to the possibility of the virus having spread from animals.

Scientists who favour the natural origins hypothesis have relied largely on history. Some of the most lethal new diseases of the past century have been traced to human interactions with wildlife and domestic animals, including the first SARS epidemic (bats), MERS-CoV (camels), Ebola (bats or non-human primates) and Nipah virus (bats). While an animal source has not been identified so far, samples from stalls from the wildlife section of the Huanan Seafood market in Wuhan tested positive, suggesting an infected animal.

What now?

Photo: Giphy

With China refusing to allow further investigations into the lab-leak theory, WHO has asked all countries to work together to investigate the origins of the coronavirus.

WHO spokesman Tarik Jasarevic said the issue should not be made about politics or be about one country blaming another.

“It is about basically a requirement we all have to try to understand how the pathogen came into the human population. In this sense, countries really have the responsibility to work together and to work with WHO in a spirit of partnership.”

Is it right on China’s part to prevent further investigation into the Covid-19 pandemic origins? On one side, it’s an important piece of the puzzle that we haven’t uncovered yet. But, China also suffered a period of serious blame and discrimination when the virus first broke out. What do you think? Let us know in the comments below!

Sources: Al Jazeera, BBC, Indian Express, Science in the News, Reuters

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