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We are farther and farther from knowing the origin of the coronavirus: research is stopped and scientists warn that the traces are being erased

Last January, a team of scientists from the World Health Organization (WHO) traveled to China to study the origin of the disease that plagued the world. That mission caused quite a stir both because of the difficulties it encountered in carrying out its work on the part of the Asian Government, which was then suspected of hiding data, and because of one of the four hypotheses that they launched after studying the available information: that the coronavirus had escaped from a laboratory that worked with animal viruses.

That first scientific mission was only the first step in what should be a long-term study that traced the origin of the coronavirus, but now it runs the risk of being the only one. And it is that the WHO team has warned, through a publication in the journal Nature, that research is practically stagnant, and that if the evidence found in the organisms of the first infected is not taken up urgently, they will disappear forever, making it impossible to unravel where the pandemic came from.

“The window on the biological feasibility of tracking people and animals in and out of China is closing fast. Antibodies to SARS-CoV-2 are declining, so collecting more samples and testing people who might have been exposed before December 2019 will yield diminishing returns.. Which makes any evidence of early spread of the coronavirus increasingly difficult to find, “they say.

For this reason, they ask the scientific community and the different governments to help them give a new impulse to research, which will be key, among other things, to understand how viruses arise that can cause global pandemics and how to prevent that something like what we have lived is repeated again.

“We call on the scientific community and the leaders of the countries (member of the United Nations) to join forces to accelerate phase 2 studies while there is still time”.

Six priorities

In order to continue advancing in the investigation that leads to the origin of the coronavirus, the team has identified six priorities that should be addressed as quickly as possible.

To begin with, they explain that they are necessary more tracing studies to look for the first cases of coronavirus, both inside and outside of China. They also consider it necessary to do antibody studies with standardized methods in the regions with the earliest evidence of virus circulation.

Third, they point out that they should be done farm monitoring surveys supplying animals to markets in Wuhan in the months before the first human cases occurred. In fourth, study wild bats and other animals that may have been intermediaries of the coronavirus, both in China and in neighboring countries.

And finally, analyze the foci of previous cases through antibody studies and investigate any new leads that has not been considered before, or that has arisen after February.

February hypotheses

In its first phase of field research, the WHO mission, in collaboration with Chinese scientists, examined medical records from Wuhan Hospital and the Hubei Province Health Network. Their conclusions were that there was “no substantial unrecognized circulation of SARS-CoV-2 in Wuhan during the latter part of 2019.”. As far as his investigation could go, “there is no evidence of large outbreaks that could be related to COVID-19 cases before December 19.” Either in Wuhan or elsewhere in the province.

What does seem clear is that the story did not begin in the Live Animals Market, but that this was only one of the sources, perhaps the largest, of the SARS-CoV-2 spread in December. The data shows that “the virus was also circulating outside the market” at that time. Therefore, the team recognized that, from their point of view and with the information they handled, “it is not possible to determine how the coronavirus was introduced into the market” of Wuhan.

Of the four working hypotheses that they established – direct jump from bats to people, intermediate passage through another species, introduction through the food chain or an incident related to the laboratory-, the researchers considered the option of an intermediate step between bats and humans to be the most likely.