WHO abandons plans for crucial second phase of COVID origin investigation

World Health Organization representatives speak with scientists at a Wuhan medical facility in February 2020

A team of experts convened by the World Health Organization met with Chinese researchers in Wuhan in February 2020 to consider when and how SARS-CoV-2 emerged.Credit: Top Photo Corporation/Shutterstock

The World Health Organization (WHO) has quietly shelved the long-awaited second phase of scientific investigation into the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic, citing ongoing challenges to attempts to conduct critical research in China. Nature I learned.

Researchers say they are disappointed by the lack of progress as understanding how the coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 first infected people is critical to preventing future outbreaks. But without access to China, there’s little the WHO can do to advance research, says Angela Rasmussen, a virologist at the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon, Canada. “Their hands are really tied.”

In January 2021, an international team of experts convened by WHO traveled to Wuhan, China, where the virus that causes COVID-19 was first detected. The team, along with Chinese researchers, reviewed evidence about when and how the virus emerged as part of the first phase.team published the report I outlined four possible scenarios in March of that year. Most likely, SARS-CoV-2 spread from bats to humans, possibly via an intermediate species. The first phase was designed to lay the groundwork for a second phase of detailed investigation to pinpoint what happened in China and elsewhere.

But two years after that high-profile trip, the WHO has abandoned plans for a second phase. “There is no Phase 2,” said WHO epidemiologist Maria Van Kerkhove in Geneva, Switzerland. NatureThe WHO had planned to do the work in stages, but “that plan has changed,” she said. she said.

Researchers are doing some work to determine the timeline for the virus’s initial spread. This includes efforts to hunt bats in areas bordering China for viruses closely related to SARS-CoV-2. Experimental studies that help narrow down which animals are susceptible and potential hosts for the virus. Testing of archived wastewater and blood samples collected worldwide in late 2019 and early 2020.

time of tension

Many researchers are not surprised that the WHO plan has been thwarted. In early 2020, members of then-U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration made unsubstantiated claims that the virus originated in a Chinese laboratory, and U.S. intelligence officials later said they had launched an investigation. has the Wuhan Institute of Virology, a high-security laboratory working on coronavirus. Chinese officials questioned whether the virus originated within its borders.

Amid mounting animosity between the two superpowers, in May 2020, WHO Member States called on the WHO to put together a science-led effort to identify how the pandemic began. China agreed to the mission, but tensions were high by the time the WHO group left for Wuhan, and after the group returned, engagement with China was quickly undone.

In a March 2021 report, the team concluded that it was “extremely unlikely” that the virus accidentally escaped the lab. But Dominic Dwyer, a member of the WHO team and a virologist at New South Wales Health Pathology in Sydney, said the inclusion of a laboratory accident scenario in the final report was not a Chinese study. It was an important point of contention for people and officials.

That July, WHO sent a circular to Member States outlining how they would proceed with origin research. Proposed steps included an evaluation of wildlife markets in and around Wuhan and the farms that supplied those markets, as well as an audit of local laboratories where the first case was identified.

Chinese officials, however, rejected the WHO plan, taking particular issue with the proposal to investigate the intrusion into laboratories. said the second phase should not focus on pathways that the mission report had already deemed highly unlikely.

In August 2021, members of the original mission team comment piece in Nature Urging immediate action on research proposed to trace the origin of the virus. said to “I’m sorry to say it actually worked.”

stuck job

Gerald Kush, deputy director of the National Institute of Emerging Infectious Diseases at Boston University in Massachusetts, said the origin investigation was “poorly handled by the international community. China’s response was poor. WHO’s response was poor. Keusch says the WHO should have been relentless in building good cooperation with the Chinese authorities. If it was sabotaging, I should have been honest about it.

Van Kerkhove said WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus continues to engage directly with Chinese government officials to encourage China to become more open and share data. WHO staff are also contacting the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention in Beijing to establish cooperation. Van Kerkhov says: “It’s a really deep frustration.”

China’s foreign ministry did not respond. NatureAn email sought comment on why the phase 2 trial stalled.

In November 2021, WHO formed the Scientific Advisory Group on the Origin of Novel Pathogens (SAGO). suggestion On how to conduct origin research to prepare for future epidemics. SAGO also evaluated evidence for the origin of SARS-CoV-2.

blood donation research

Outside the formal WHO-led process, some Research proposed for Phase 2 is progressingLast May, researchers from Beijing and Wuhan published their results1 Analysis of donor blood provided to Wuhan Blood Center before December 2019. The team screened more than 88,000 plasma samples collected from September 1, 2019 to December 31, and he found no SARS-CoV-2 blocking antibodies in any of the samples. bottom.

Michael Worobey, an evolutionary virologist at the University of Arizona in Tucson, said the study is an important contribution from Chinese scientists and supports early genome analysis.2 The virus probably didn’t emerge in September, indicating it wasn’t circulating in Wuhan in late 2019.

another study3 Non-peer-reviewed Chinese researchers reported finding traces of SARS-CoV-2 at the Huanan Seafood Market in Wuhan in January and February 2020.FourSamples were taken from sewers, drains, surfaces of doors and stalls, and the ground. The researchers concluded that the virus was probably expelled by humans, but Rasmussen and others examined raw data, including swabs from exterminators, in detail to see if they could identify animal species. I would like to find out.

“I still hope to see progress,” said Thea Fischer, a public health virologist at the University of Copenhagen, member of the mission to Wuhan, and member of SAGO.

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