understanding the origin of the pandemic, a “key scientific question” for the future

understanding the origin of the pandemic, a “key scientific question” for the future
understanding the origin of the pandemic, a “key scientific question” for the future
It was eagerly awaited but, unsurprisingly, the report from the World Health Organization (WHO) on the origins of Covid-19 fails to shed any light on the sources of the pandemic. The international experts recently dispatched to China presented, on Tuesday, March 30 in Geneva, the details of their conclusions. They favor the track of transmission of Sars-CoV-2 to humans by an intermediate animal from a reservoir animal (probably the bat).

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For Etienne Decroly, research director at CNRS at Aix-Marseille University, this conclusion “is not supported” scientifically. He points to the lack of independence of an investigation which was more, according to him, “a diplomatic mission to study the results of the first analyzes conducted by the Chinese authorities”.

franceinfo: What do you take away from this report?

Etienne Decroly : The main information that I retain is that despite the investigations conducted by the Chinese authorities, today, no scientific evidence allows to draw a conclusion among the various hypotheses proposed to explain the origin of Sars-CoV-2 .

I also note that there is little new scientific information presented in the report. If we want to resolve the question of the origin of the virus with scientific methods, we will have to put in place the conditions so that additional investigations can take place.

In particular, there is a lack of tangible elements, because the members of the commission did not have access to the frozen blood samples linked to the 2019 blood donations available to China. These elements would allow a retrospective investigation and they are essential to trace the beginning of the epidemic.

“The report does not contain any factual information regarding the virology laboratories working on coronaviruses in the city of Wuhan.”

Etienne Decroly

to franceinfo

The health data of laboratory personnel and possible viral infections of workers are not presented, even though serological studies were hoped for, given recent revelations from the American intelligence services on the possible contamination of laboratory personnel. .

What do you think of the main hypothesis, according to which the virus would have been transmitted from a reservoir animal (probably the bat) to humans, via another animal not yet identified?

This hypothesis is naturally the main hypothesis, because it is one of the best described mechanisms of the emergence of new human viruses. To confirm this hypothesis, a massive sampling of farm animals and wild animals was carried out by the Chinese authorities. But to date, no sample containing a virus-progeny of Sars-CoV-2 has been identified. The conclusion of the commission is that the hypothesis remains main, whereas it is not supported by the samples.

The hypothesis of an accident at one of the Wuhan laboratories is described as “extremely unlikely” to explain the emergence of Sars-CoV-2. What do you think ?

The scientific report does not contain elements which invalidate or confirm this hypothesis and it is therefore impossible to conclude in the absence of tangible elements. In addition, the Director-General of WHO recalled (in English) that “Although the team concluded that a lab leak is the least likely hypothesis, it requires further investigation, possibly with additional missions involving specialist experts, which I am prepared to deploy.”

Why do you deplore, in a forum that you co-sign in The world, the lack of independence of the survey conducted by the WHO?

Because we can see that the search for the origin of Sars-CoV-2 is an eminently political question, beyond the scientific question. It is unfortunate that among the scientists mandated by the WHO to lead the mission, some collaborated and funded the work of the Wuhan laboratory. These are not the ideal conditions for conducting an impartial investigation.

Do you think the experts sent to China lacked access and information to be able to conduct a more solid investigation?

Yes and besides, we cannot qualify this fact-finding mission. It was more of a diplomatic mission aimed at studying the results of the first analyzes carried out by the Chinese authorities. The scientists who were commissioned did not have the power of investigation.

It is astonishing that the European and world political authorities do not worry more about this situation and are not more proactive, so that the WHO has the necessary means to resolve the question of the origin of the epidemic. Investigations should not start with such a delay, because it is much more difficult to collect large samples and therefore to identify the mechanisms of emergence of this pandemic more than a year after its start.

“If the WHO is not in a position to respond to its mission, it may be necessary to redesign its fields of action.”

Etienne Decroly

to franceinfo

Why is it so important to know the origins of Covid-19?

One might think that resolving the issue of the origin of the pandemic is unnecessary, when it is necessary to concentrate its efforts on vaccination and the development of treatments. However, this is an absolutely key scientific question if we want to be able to put in place effective countermeasures in the future. For example, for influenza viruses, we know that duck farms are at risk and can promote the emergence of potentially pandemic viruses in humans. The appearance of avian viruses is therefore monitored in these farms and slaughter campaigns are organized to avoid zoonoses.

We could implement similar strategies for coronaviruses if we knew the zoological mechanisms. If we do not identify the mechanisms underlying the birth of the Sars-CoV-2 epidemic, we run the risk of re-enacting similar epidemic situations in the coming years.

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