WHO Quietly Shelves Plans For Second Phase Of Its COVID-origins Investigation

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Credit: National Cancer Institute/ unsplash
  • The World Health Organization (WHO) has quietly shelved the second phase of its much-anticipated scientific investigation into the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • Sensitive studies in China were intended to pinpoint the source of the pandemic virus.
  • WHO has cited ongoing challenges over attempts to conduct crucial studies in China.

Researchers say they are disappointed that the investigation isn’t going ahead, because understanding how the coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 first infected people is important for preventing future outbreaks.

Team Of Experts Convened

In January 2021, an international team of experts convened by the WHO traveled to Wuhan, China, where the virus that causes COVID-19 was first detected. Together with Chinese researchers, the team reviewed evidence on when and how the virus might have emerged, as part of phase one. The team released a report in March that year outlining four possible scenarios, the most likely being that SARS-CoV-2 spread from bats to people, possibly through an intermediate species. Phase one was designed to lay the groundwork for a second phase of in-depth studies to pin down exactly what happened in China and elsewhere. But two years since that high-profile trip, the WHO has abandoned its phase-two plans. 

Tense Times

Many researchers aren’t surprised that the WHO’s plans have been thwarted. In early 2020, members of then US president Donald Trump’s administration made unsubstantiated claims that the virus had originated in a Chinese laboratory, and US intelligence officials later said they had begun investigations. The city of Wuhan is home to the Wuhan Institute of Virology, a high-security lab that works on coronaviruses. Chinese officials questioned whether the virus originated inside the country’s borders.

In the midst of simmering hostility between the two superpowers, WHO member states requested in May 2020 that the agency put together a science-led effort to identify how the pandemic started. In its March 2021 report, the team concluded that it was “extremely unlikely” that the virus accidentally escaped from a laboratory. But the inclusion of the lab-incident scenario in the final report was a key point of contention for Chinese researchers and officials, says Dominic Dwyer, a virologist at New South Wales Health Pathology in Sydney, who was a member of the WHO team.

But Chinese officials rejected the WHO’s plans, taking particular issue with the proposal to investigate lab breaches. Zhao Lijian, the spokesperson for China’s foreign ministry, said the WHO proposal was not agreed by all member states, and that the second phase should not focus on pathways the mission report had already deemed extremely unlikely.

Blood Donors Study

Outside the formal WHO-led process, some studies proposed for phase two have gone ahead. In May last year, researchers in Beijing and Wuhan published the results1 of an analysis of donor blood supplied to the Wuhan Blood Center before December 2019. The researchers were looking for SARS-CoV-2 antibodies that could signify some of the earliest infections in the pandemic. The team screened more than 88,000 plasma samples collected between 1 September and 31 December 2019, but did not find any SARS-CoV-2-blocking antibodies in the samples. 

Michael Worobey, an evolutionary virologist at the University of Arizona in Tucson, says the work is an important contribution from Chinese scientists, supporting earlier genomic analyses showing that the virus probably had not emerged as early as September and was not widespread in Wuhan in late 2019. Another study by researchers from China, which has not been peer reviewed, reported finding traces of SARS-CoV-2 in January and February 2020 at the Huanan seafood market in Wuhan, which was visited by many of the earliest known people with COVID-19. Samples were taken from sewage, drains, the surfaces of doors and market stalls, and from the ground, among other places. 

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Source: Nature