Health and Science

WHO investigators say Covid origins could be known 'within the next few years'

Key Points
  • At a press conference on Feb. 9, the WHO-led team said Covid "most likely" originated in animals before spreading to humans.
  • They dismissed a theory that the disease had been leaked by the Wuhan Institute of Virology.
Peter Daszak (R), Thea Fischer (L) and other members of the World Health Organization (WHO) team investigating the origins of the Covid-19 coronavirus, arrive at the Wuhan Institute of Virology in Wuhan in China's central Hubei province on February 3, 2021.

LONDON — The origins of the coronavirus will most likely be known within the next few years, according to a key member of a World Health Organization-led investigation into the pandemic's origins.

"I'm convinced we are going to find out fairly soon," Dr. Peter Daszak, a member of the WHO-led team and an animal disease specialist, said on Wednesday during a webinar hosted by think tank Chatham House. 

"Within the next few years, we are going to have real significant data on where this came from and how it emerged," he added.

Daszak, who is also president of New York-based non-profit EcoHealth Alliance, said it should be possible for collective scientific data to accurately work out how animals with the coronavirus infected the first people in Wuhan, China in Dec. 2019.

He said the wildlife trade was the most likely explanation of how Covid arrived in China, saying this hypothesis was "strongly supported" both from the WHO's perspective and scientists in China.

"There was a conduit from Wuhan to the provinces in south China, where the closest relative viruses to (Covid) are found in bats," Daszak said, describing this discovery as "a really important clue."

Daszak was one of three team members of the WHO-led team of international scientists who spoke during the webinar. He said a report outlining the initial conclusions of the recent month-long investigation could be released as soon as next week.

'Isn't it already too late?'

Over the course of four weeks through to early February, investigators visited hospitals, laboratories and markets in the Chinese city of Wuhan, including the Huanan Seafood Market, the Wuhan Institute of Virology and the Wuhan Center for Disease Control laboratory.

At a press conference on Feb. 9, the WHO-led team said Covid "most likely" originated in animals before spreading to humans and dismissed a theory that the disease had been leaked by the Wuhan Institute of Virology. This hypothesis had been perpetuated by former President Donald Trump's administration, without the weight of evidence, and strenuously denied by Chinese officials.

Dr. Marion Koopmans, a virologist at Erasmus University Medical Centre in the Netherlands, said during the same webinar that it was "extremely unlikely" that there was a lab incident.

Koopmans said she is frequently asked, in connection to the search for clues to the origins of the Covid pandemic, "isn't it already too late?"

"I think there's two answers to it. Of course, ideally, you would do a full-blown, full-detail investigation right early on when the first things happen. But it is very understandable that if you are in the middle of an explosive outbreak that that draws the attention, which happened in Wuhan," Koopmans said.

"There are things that we have learned over the past year that we didn't know early on. I think we have, from the different experimental studies and different field observations, we have a better idea which types of animals to think about. We have a somewhat better understanding of how these viruses transmit, the superspreading events, and you can bring that knowledge back into how you now look at the information from the very early stages."

She added: "So, there's pros and cons about that and it is certainly not a lost opportunity to start looking into this even if it was a year after the start, or what we think was the start, of the pandemic."

Future pandemics

The origins of the coronavirus remain critically important to global public health because it is constantly evolving as it spreads, as highly infectious mutant strains identified in the U.K. and South Africa demonstrate.

Scientists also say it is essential to try to understand the origins of the Covid pandemic in order to be better prepared for future pandemics.

One year after the coronavirus was first declared a pandemic, more than 118 million people have contracted the virus worldwide, with over 2.6 million deaths, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University.

The U.S., by far, has reported the highest number of confirmed Covid cases and deaths, with more than 29 million reported infections and 529,263 fatalities.