- The World Health Organization cannot agree on the likelihood of a coronavirus leak from a Wuhan laboratory.
- A hypothesis described at first as unlikely, before the leader of the organization urges not to dismiss it too quickly.
- For Etienne Drecroly, virologist at the CNRS in Marseille, this hypothesis is plausible for several reasons.
On Monday, the World Health Organization (WHO) released a report on the possible origins of the coronavirus, judging a laboratory leak to be “extremely unlikely” after a four-week mission to China. Some specialists in the report noted, however, that they did not have all the latitude to work freely, because of very reluctant Chinese authorities.
A few hours later, the director general of the WHO Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus asked not to sweep away any theory, and asked for a specific investigation into the hypothesis of a laboratory leak in China. For the virologist Étienne Decroly, researcher at the CNRS, knowing the origin of the virus is of paramount importance.
What are the leads that suggest that the coronavirus could come from a laboratory?
To put it simply, the initial hypothesis is to say that this kind of disease is a zoonosis, that is, it is transmitted to humans from animal species. According to this hypothesis, scientists have collected different samples whether in wildlife, in farms, in domestic animals around the Wuhan region and in China. More than 80,000 samples were collected from animals and none were positive for SARS-COV2. This first observation already undermines the hypothesis of a zoonosis.
The known viruses closest to SARS-COV2 are also known to be present in bat species, which are not endemic to Wuhan at all, but rather originate from Laos and Cambodia, so there is a hiatus. between the area from which this virus should have emerged and the area where it emerged. What we do know, however, is that these viruses are collected to be studied in laboratories, especially in Wuhan, so we cannot rule out the hypothesis of a laboratory accident.
Is there a political issue?
The joint commission with scientific experts from the World Health Organization and Chinese experts declared that the hypothesis of a laboratory accident was very implausible … But a few hours later, the director general of the WHO Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus communicated antagonistically, stating that all the hypotheses were still viable, including that of a laboratory accident.
The United States and fourteen allied countries said they were concerned about this WHO report and signed a letter asking the health organization to be much more proactive in its research to find the origin of this pandemic, a position which the European Union also joined. This is a political novelty, countries have not always been so concerned with unraveling the origins of Covid-19, and it is a good thing that it is finally happening. There is a necessary recent political awareness on the importance of understanding where this pandemic is coming from.
China is not very open about these data, but the work of the WHO must be to re-explain the issue of knowing the origin of the virus and be sufficiently clear on its objectives so that everyone adheres to it. good cooperation. If the political difficulties are too great and China refuses to collaborate, this will at least invite a review of WHO’s missions, by defining them better and by better defining its capacity to send experts to areas of emergence of politically sensitive viruses.
Will knowing the origins of the virus make it possible to know it better?
The challenge is not to have better treatments against Covid-19, but by knowing its origin, we can put in place monitoring mechanisms or countermeasures to prevent this from happening again. For example, we know that avian influenza can be transmitted to humans, in fact there is surveillance of chickens and ducks in farms, and in times of avian influenza epidemic, slaughterings are set up, precisely. in the name of this surveillance.
If we understand the route of transmission, we can monitor these animals if it is indeed a zoonosis, or if the route of transmission has passed through a laboratory, we can better monitor the laboratories or change certain procedures. . The origin of the coronavirus is therefore important, not to manage this pandemic, but to avoid others.