It’s now or never to know the biological origin of the coronavirus!

Whether they emanate from the WHO or the American authorities, none of the latest reports concerning the biological origins of SARS-CoV-2 allow one or the other of the hypotheses to be validated: laboratory accident or natural emergence of the new disease. coronavirus … The more time passes, the more the biological origins are dispersed. However, it is crucial to determine them in order to avoid the next zoonotic pandemics.

The ConversationSARS-CoV-2, the Covid-19, spawned the biggest pandemic in the last hundred years … Understanding its origins is therefore crucial to elucidate what happened at the end of 2019 – and prepare for the next viral pandemic. Studies of this type take time, require organization and cooperation. Moreover, they must be guided by scientific principles, and not by political motives or posture. However, for various reasons, the ongoing investigation into the origins of SARS-CoV-2 has already taken too long: the first cases were reported in Wuhan, China, in December 2019, more than 20 months ago.

As reported by various media, on August 24, US intelligence agencies transmitted to President Joe Biden the result of their research on theemergence of the’epidemic. (A summary of this work was declassified and made public a few days later, editor’s note).

According to a preliminary account published in the New York Times, the investigation does not yet make it possible to determine whether the spread of the virus followed a laboratory accident or has proceeded from a natural emergence involving a passage from animals to humans.

If the possibility of a leak in laboratory remains an avenue to be explored (provided that it can be scientifically substantiated), it should not distract attention from the other hypothesis which, based on the data currently available, should mobilize most of the our energy… In fact, the more time passes, the less the experts will be able to determine the biological origins of the virus.

Six recommendations for further investigation

I am one of the experts who left for Wuhan at the start of the year in the context of theWHO (World Health Organization) intended to make the light on the question of the origin of SARS-CoV-2. We found that the available evidence clearly indicates that the pandemic started as a result of “zoonotic” transmission of the virus, that is to say a transfer from animal to human.

Our survey resulted in a report, published in March 2021, in which we make several recommendations for the work to be considered next. It is now urgent to tackle design scientific studies that will allow them to be carried out.

On August 25, together with other writers of this report, we published an article in the review Nature to plead in this direction. We are wasting precious time, which could be devoted to deepening six lines of research in order to learn more about the origin of coronavirus. These areas, which we believe are priorities, are as follows:

  • The studies of traceability additional, based on initial reports of the disease.

  • Surveys aimed at analyzing the antibodies specific SARS-CoV-2 developed by patients living in regions where the first cases of Covid-19 occurred. This is important because, in many countries (including Italy, France, Spain and the United Kingdom), the evidence that would have supported cases of early detections of the coronavirus has been shown to be inconclusive.

  • Traceability surveys conducted in communities that had relationships with the wildlife farms that supplied Wuhan’s markets often reported inconclusive evidence of early detection of Covid-19.

  • Studies designed to assess the risks represented by the potential host animals. This may be the primary host (such as bats), ofsecondary hosts or animals which would have played the role of amplifiers.

  • Detailed analyzes of risk factors for early outbreaks, wherever they have occurred …

  • The follow-up of any new credible leads.

A race against time is underway

Time is of the essence in the feasibility of some of these studies. We know, for example, that anti-SARS-CoV-2 antibody appear about a week after a person has been infected with the virus and has recovered, or after being vaccinated.

But their concentration decreases over time – Analyzing samples taken now from people who were infected in December 2019 or even before could prove more difficult, and this problem will not improve as time goes on. Rely on the analysis of antibodies present in the general population to differentiate between vaccination, natural infection or secondary infection (especially if the initial infection occurred in 2019) is also problematic.

For example, after infection with the virus, a range of antibodies specific to SARS-CoV-2, directed against protein Spike or against the nucleoprotein, is detectable for durations variable, at variable concentrations and also according to the capacities of neutralization of the coronavirus variable.

For all these reasons, time is a resource we cannot afford to waste.

In the case of vaccination, according to the vaccine used, it may be that only the antibodies to be detected are those directed against the Spike protein are detected, which also decrease over time.

An international consensus regarding the detection methods used in the laboratory is also necessary. In recent months, differences in the analysis protocols used have indeed given rise to discussions on the quality of the data collected in various parts of the world.

However, reach an agreement on the laboratory techniques to be used in the serological studies and genomics, as well as accessing and sharing samples (while taking into account consent and privacy issues) takes … time.

And it also takes time to get funding … For all these reasons, time is a resource that we cannot afford to waste.

The constraints of the field

In addition, in Wuhan, many wildlife farms have closed following the initial outbreak, usually without any control. With the resulting dispersal of animals and humans, it is increasingly difficult to find biological evidence in either side of the early spread of the coronavirus.

It is increasingly difficult to find biological evidence in either side of the early spread of the coronavirus

Fortunately, some analyzes can still be carried out. These include reviews of initial case studies, and studies of blood donors in Wuhan and other Chinese cities (as well as in all places where blood donors are genomes viruses were detected early).

It is important to analyze the progress or the results of these studies carried out by local and international experts, but no mechanism allowing this type of verification has yet been put in place.

Since March and the publication of the WHO report, new elements have emerged. These, like the data in our report, have been reviewed by independent scientists. The latter arrived at conclusions similar to those of the WHO document, to know :

  • the natural reservoir of SARS-CoV-2 has not yet been identified;

  • the cash keys (in China or elsewhere) might not have been tested;

  • there is substantial scientific evidence supporting the zoonotic origin of the pandemic.

A step forward, a step to the side …

While the possibility of a laboratory accident cannot be completely ruled out, it is highly unlikely, given the repeated human-animal contact that regularly occurs in the wildlife trade.

However, the hypothesis of the coronavirus escaped from a laboratory continues to arouse the interest of media, despite the available evidence … These discussions, more political than scientific, further slow down cooperation and obtaining the necessary agreements to advance the studies required by the second phase of the WHO report.

The World Health Organization has called for the creation of a new committee to oversee future studies on the origins of the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus. The initiative is commendable, but it risks causing further delay in the planning envisaged for the said studies …

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