Scientists investigating the source of the coronavirus have completed a lengthy investigation in China and have found “important clues” about the role of the Wuhan seafood market in the outbreak.
Peter Daszak, a New York-based zoologist assisting the mission funded by the World Health Organization, said he anticipates the key findings will be published before his scheduled departure on Feb. 10. Daszak said the 14-members group collaborated with experts in China from the central city of Wuhan, where Covid-19 mushroomed in December 2019 and visited key hot spots and research centres to uncover’ some real clues about what happened.’
Investigators want to know how the SARS-CoV-2 virus spread explosively in Wuhan before triggering the worst contagion in more than a century—whose nearest known relative came from bats 1,000 miles away. Daszak said the inquiry heralds a pandemic reduction turning point.
“Hopefully, this is the beginning of a really deep understanding of what happened so that we can stop the next one,” he said late Friday over Zoom. That’s what it’s all about—trying to understand why these problems happen so that, when waiting for vaccinations, we don’t constantly have global economic crashes and horrible mortality. This is simply not a viable future.
More than 105.7 million infections and 2.3 million deaths have been caused by Covid-19 worldwide.
In May, the WHO was asked to help “identify the zoonotic source of the virus and the human population route of introduction, including the potential role of intermediate hosts.”
The lack of a clear path from bats to humans has stoked speculation that the virus may have escaped from the Wuhan Institute of Virology, a maximum bio-containment laboratory that studies bat-borne coronaviruses, refuted by Daszak and many other scientists.
Scientists visited the laboratory and asked Shi Zhengli, who for more than a decade has collected and studied these viruses, about the study and the earliest known coronavirus cases.
“We really need to cover the entire range of key lines of inquiry,” Daszak said.
“We’ve been doing the same for the last few months in order to be equal to our hosts here in China. They worked behind the scenes, digging up the details, looking at it and making it ready,” Daszak added.
The study was “collaborative,” he said, with Chinese colleagues assisting project investigators dig deeper for clues
“We really have to cover the whole range of key investigation lines,” Daszak said. “They have been doing the same for the last few months to be fair to our hosts here in China. They’ve been working behind the scenes, digging up the information, looking at it, and getting it ready.”
The study was “collaborative,” he said, with Chinese colleagues assisting project investigators dig deeper for clues.
“Every day we sat down with them and went through information, new data, and then said we want to go to the key places,” said the British scientist. “They asked for a list. We suggested where we should go and the people we should meet. We went on that list to every location and they were really forthcoming with that.”
Daszak is one of the 10 independent professionals assisting the mission of the WHO. The Organisation also has five staff members, and the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization and the Paris-based World Animal Health Organization have two staff members each.
Delegates to the mission operated in three groups based on the possible involvement of animals, disease epidemiology or spread, and environmental sampling results. Genetic sequencing data helps researchers identify threads that connect data between patients and wildlife, Daszak said.
Daszak, who concentrated on the animal side, said his trip to the fresh produce market of Huanan in central Wuhan was particularly helpful.
The so-called wet market mainly sold fish, as well as meat that included wildlife that was freshly cooked. When cases emerged among employees and shoppers, it was a priority early in the outbreak, suggesting it may have been where the virus transferred from animals to humans.
Earlier cases among people not connected to the market were identified by subsequent studies, questioning the hypothesis. Investigators searched deeper and, Daszak said, found “important clues” about the position of the market, declining to elaborate.
We’re trying to tease them all together right now,” he said.” “They looked separately at these three threads. We’re going to pull it together now and see what it all means to us.
“While almost immediately after cases were identified, the food market was shuttered and cleaned, “it’s still pretty intact,” Daszak said. “People left in a panic and left utensils left signs of what was going on, and that’s what we looked at.
“We now know what we didn’t know then—that there were others that were asymptomatic or difficult to distinguish from a cold or cough for every sick case,” Daszak said. “And so it’s not surprising that there would have been other cases other than those that got into the hospital. But when did this begin, how many others? That’s the kind of thing that we’re still working on.”
Viruses are passed along “convoluted rivers of emergence” and it is difficult to track the path and it will take “a really long time,” said Daszak. “What I have already seen tells me that there are some real clues as to what has happened, and I hope that by the end of this trip we will be able to make a sound explanation of that.”
(Jason Gale | Bloomberg)