In a joint statement released Sunday, the leaders of seven of the richest nations called for “strengthening transparency and accountability, including reiterating our commitment to the full implementation of, and improved compliance with, the International Health Regulations 2005.”
“This includes investigating, reporting and responding to outbreaks of unknown origin. We also call for a timely, transparent, expert-led, and science-based WHO-convened Phase 2 COVID-19 Origins study including, as recommended by the experts’ report, in China,” the statement said.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson too said that Britain wants further investigation into the origins of the coronavirus pandemic, but that at the moment the country doesn’t believe it came from a lab.
Speaking at the end of the Group of Seven summit in southwest England, Johnson said that while it doesn’t look as if this particular disease came from a lab, the world needs to “keep an open mind.”
Though the notion was once dismissed by most public health experts and government officials, the hypothesis that COVID-19 leaked accidentally from a Chinese lab is now under a new U.S. investigation ordered by President Joe Biden.
Many scientists, including Dr. Anthony Fauci, say they still believe the virus most likely occurred in nature and jumped from animals to humans. Virus researchers have not publicly identified any key new scientific evidence that might make the lab-leak hypothesis more likely.
Virologists also say it is unlikely that any definitive answer about virus origins will be possible in 90 days. The work to fully confirm origins and pathways of past viruses — such as the first SARS or HIV/AIDS — has taken years or decades.
What do scientists believe about virus origins?
The most compelling argument for investigating the possibility of a lab leak is not any new hard evidence, but rather the fact that another pathway for virus spread has not been 100 per cent confirmed.
“The great probability is still that this virus came from a wildlife reservoir,” said Arinjay Banerjee, a virologist at the Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization in Saskatchewan, Canada. He pointed to the fact that spillover events – when viruses jump from animals to humans – are common in nature, and that scientists already know of two similar beta coronaviruses that evolved in bats and caused epidemics when humans were infected, SARS1 and MERS.
However, the case is not completely closed. “There are probabilities, and there are possibilities,” said Banerjee. “Because nobody has identified a virus that’s 100 per cent identical to SARS-CoV-2 in any animal, there is still room for researchers to ask about other possibilities.”
How long does it take to confirm the origin of a virus?
Confirming with 100% certainty the origin of a virus is often not fast, easy, or always even possible.
For example, scientists never confirmed the origin of smallpox before the disease was eradicated through a global vaccination program.
In the case of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) – a disease caused by a beta coronavirus, like the current coronavirus – researchers first identified the virus in February 2003. Later that year, scientists discovered the likely intermediary hosts: Himalayan palm civets found at live-animal markets in Guangdong, China. But it wasn’t until 2017 that researchers traced the likely original source of the virus to bat caves in China’s Yunnan province.
How important is it to understand the origin?
From a scientific perspective, researchers are always keen to better understand how diseases evolve. From a public health perspective, if a virus has transitioned to being spread mostly by human-to-human contact, discovering its origins is not as essential to strategies for containing the disease.
“Questions of origins and questions of disease control are not the same thing once human-to-human transmission has become common,” said Deborah Seligsohn, an expert in environment and public health at Villanova University.
–With files from Global News’ Twinkle Ghosh
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