Where did it come from? More than a year later, nobody knows for sure. But a new report may soon shed light on the origins of the coronavirus that has wreaked havoc across the world, killing more than 2.6 million people, including around 530,000 in the United States.
A World Health Organization team has been looking into how the virus, SARS-CoV-2, emerged, and their report is expected to be issued this month. Several experts from the team, speaking at a forum Wednesday, indicated that the report will say the most likely scenario was that the virus jumped from animals to humans, leading to the first known outbreak at a seafood market in Wuhan, China.
Peter Daszak, a member of the team, which included both international experts as well as scientists from China, said that hypothesis was “the one that’s most strongly supported by both on the WHO side and the China side — that a bat or other wildlife species carried a virus that’s a progenitor of SARS-CoV-2. It got into domestic animals, wildlife bred in farms perhaps, or people associated with that, and got into the Wuhan market that way.”
“I believe that’s the most likely scenario, and I think most people on both sides of the mission felt the same way,” said Daszak, an expert on the cause and spread of diseases that originate in animals,
Daszak and two other team members were on a panel organized by Chatham House, an international affairs think tank in London, discussing their monthlong visit to China, which ended last month.
One clue the team found, Daszak said, was that the market in Wuhan did sell animals that could carry coronaviruses.
Data from China showed that animals in the market were able to be infected by SARS coronavirus or SARS-CoV-2, he said. “We only know that from frozen animals that were left behind when the market was closed.”
“We also found that there was a conduit from Wuhan to the provinces in south China where the closest relative viruses to SARS-CoV-2 are found in bats. So I think that’s quite important. It provides a link in a pathway by which a virus could, you know, convincingly spill over from wildlife into either people or animals farmed in the region and then [be] shipped into a market by some means,” he said.
Recent studies have added weight to the idea that the virus arose naturally and spilled over into humans. The Wall Street Journal reported earlier this month that at least four recent studies have identified coronaviruses closely related to SARS-CoV-2 in bats and pangolins (also known as scaly anteaters) in Southeast Asia and Japan. Another study suggests that a change in a single amino acid in a key component of the virus enabled or at least helped the virus become infectious in humans, the Journal reported.
Some critics have raised the possibility that the virus, rather than originating naturally, leaked from a research lab, and they’ve called for an independent investigation separate from the WHO-China report. Wuhan is home to the Wuhan Institute of Virology.
Dr. David A. Relman, a professor of medicine and microbiology at Stanford University, told The New York Times last week that “based on what we know so far ... the WHO investigation appears to be biased, skewed, and insufficient.”
The WHO team members at the forum on Wednesday said they had looked into the question of a lab leak and were skeptical.
“We concluded that it’s extremely unlikely that there was a lab incident,” said another team member, Marion Koopmans, head of the Department of Viroscience at Erasmus University Medical Center in Rotterdam.
She said the team had approached the investigation asking, “What does the evidence tell us?” and had not found anything indicating a leak from a lab.
Addressing people who have alternate theories, she said, “Please provide what evidence you have to WHO and then it will be taken into consideration, but we cannot work on the basis of speculation. We work on basis of the observations that we have.”
Jeremiah Manion of the Globe staff contributed to this report.
Martin Finucane can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.