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Coronavirus Explainers

Coronavirus Explainer: Origins Of COVID-19 Is Still A Critical Missing Piece Of The Pandemic Puzzle

Currently, a team from the World Health Organisation (WHO) is in China to initiate modalities for investigating the origins of SARS-CoV-2, the virus behind the COVID-19 pandemic

Scientists Map How Coronavirus Spreads Indoor Via Aerosol
  • WHO team in China to initiate investigations into COVID-19 origins
  • Aim to understand animal hosts for COVID & how it jumped to humans: Dr Ryan
  • WHO’s investigations may help in settling unanswered questions: Experts

New Delhi: After nearly seven months of the world fighting the worst pandemic in 100 years, one of the biggest mysteries that remains unsolved is the origin of the virus itself. It is true that the first reported cases of the Novel Coronavirus came from Wuhan in China and based on the initial cases it was believed that the wet market in Wuhan could be the origin of this outbreak. But there is no scientific evidence yet to link the wet market to the outbreak and more than that there is a complete lack of knowledge of how the virus reached humans. On July 7, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director General of World Health Organisation (WHO) said,

Over the past few months, there has been a lot of discussion about the origins of COVID-19. All preparations have been finalised and WHO experts will be travelling to China this weekend to prepare scientific plans with their Chinese counterparts for identifying the zoonotic sources of the disease.

Also Read: 6 Months On, A Recap Of How the Coronavirus Pandemic Unfolded

A zoonotic outbreak refers to germs, could be virus, bacteria, parasite or fungi that originate in vertebrate animals and then spread to humans. From influenza pandemic in 1918-19 to HIV, Ebola, Swine Flu, Zika and NIPAH virus outbreaks, it is estimated that 70-80 per cent of all emerging and re-emerging infectious diseases are of zoonotic origins. The current outbreak is a new strain of the coronavirus, variants of which have been known to the scientists as originating from bats.

Also Read: Coronavirus Explainer: 15 COVID-19 Related Terms And What These Mean

For instance, the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) outbreak of 2002, which was caused by SARS-CoV, the predecessor of the current pandemic, also started in China and is believed to be found in bats which then “spilled over” to civet cats, before finding its way into humans. The transition to civet cats possibly happened in a wet market, like the one in Wuhan being suspected to be the epicenter for this particular outbreak. Civet cats were a delicacy in China and sold in wet markets for human consumption. After these animals are found to be the source of SARS, not only was the sale of these banned but many civet cats were culled to control the outbreak. SARS subsided in 2003 after spreading to 26 countries, infecting 8,000 and killing around 800 people. Even in case of the other coronavirus outbreak in 2012, the Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome or MERS, the MERS-CoV jumped from bats to humans through an intermediary species which took over a year to be identified.

I’ve personally been on several missions for WHO related to different emerging infections and if I just think back to MERS, for example, it took us more than a year to identify the intermediate hosts, which are the Dromedary camels. But on these types of missions what we do is we listen, we learn, we understand what has been done so far, so that we can work with counterparts and with international partners to lay out what needs to be done in terms of what studies need to be done at the animal-human interface, said Dr Maria Van Kerkhove, WHO’s Technical Lead for COVID-19 during a press briefing.

Also Read: Coronavirus Explained: What Is Middle East Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus?

The reason the WHO mission to discover the origin of SARS-CoV-2 assumes importance is because currently the chain of origin and transmission is scientifically known. Bats may have been the primary carriers, once that is established it needs to be scientifically established if the “spill over” happened directly or were there any other species involved before humans got infected. Laying out the objectives of the China mission, Dr Mike Ryan, Executive Director of WHO’s Emergencies Programme on July 13 explained that the two member team which had reached China and was undergoing mandatory quarantine as per the Chinese government rules, but this is really the first step in a long-drawn process. He said,

This is a preliminary advance team that’s there to work with the Chinese scientists and others to lay out what the main questions and the approach and the studies that are going to be needed by a much larger international team that will work in collaboration with the Chinese colleagues over the coming weeks and months. The experts will develop the scope and terms of reference for a WHO-led international mission. The mission objective is to advance the understanding of animal hosts for COVID-19 and ascertain how the disease jumped between animals and humans.

Identifying the exact manner in which the disease made the transition from animals to human not only establishes how the pandemic unfolded but is also a critical link to probably control and prevent similar outbreaks in future.

I think it is a really important question to figure out first of all which bat species it came from, but also if there were any other types of intermediate species involved, those are really important questions. Even if it doesn’t help us contain this pandemic it will help us to have more information on how to prevent something like this from happening again. I think it’s also important from a foreign policy perspective at least here in the US because we have seen these conspiracy theories about laboratory origins and suggestions that this virus was engineered, so I think it is really important to do this investigation, says Columbia University virologist Dr. Angela Rasmussen.

Putting conspiracy theories to rest conclusively is one crucial aspect of the investigations in the origins of COVID-19, but as Giridhar R Babu, Professor and Head Lifecourse Epidemiology at Public Health Foundation of India lists down, there are still many unanswered questions when it comes to this outbreak that the investigations can throw some light on,

“The virus has a zoonotic source and can spread from animals to humans too. It is similar to SARS related bat coronavirus in the Sarbecovirus group of betacoronaviruses. But critical unanswered questions are –

  • Which characteristics of the virus increase its effectiveness in spreading? And why couldn’t it be contained in the early days?
  • Advanced and detailed understanding of the different strains of the virus and its mutation
  • How about the rate of viral mutation?
  • Why is the infection asymptomatic among the majority?
  • It causes death even among cases who were otherwise healthy. How and why it is happening?
  • Among the survivors, is there a chance for reinfection? And what are the other health consequences in them in the long run?”

Also Read: What Do We Know About The Coronavirus Pandemic

Previous Coronavirus outbreaks originated in bats and spilled over to humans but origins of COVID-19 is still unknown

Coronavirus Explainer: Origins Of COVID-19 Is Still A Critical Missing Piece Of The Pandemic Puzzle

Clearly, a lot of work still remains to be done in understanding the worst pandemic of our lifetime.

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