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Virologists Urge Finding COVID-19’s Origin To Prevent Future Pandemics

July 14, 2021 by Tom Ramstack
Wuhan Institute of Virology. (Wikimedia Commons)

WASHINGTON — A congressional panel called a group of virologists together Wednesday to figure out the source of the COVID-19 virus but ended their hearing by concluding they still don’t know.

However, they did agree the virus that has killed more than four million people worldwide should be a lesson on preparing for the next pandemic.

“It is time to determine how that international catastrophe started,” said Rep. Bill Foster, chairman of the House Science, Space and Technology subcommittee on investigations and oversight. 

Much of their suspicion fell on the Wuhan Institute of Virology and growing evidence COVID-19 escaped from the Chinese laboratory during a research accident.

If true, the lab accident would be a far cry from the Chinese government’s contention the virus jumped naturally from bats to humans before spreading worldwide.

Foster, D-Ill., said “the lack of transparency from the Chinese government” is a threat that interfered with the effort to control COVID-19 and to prevent future disease outbreaks of similar origin.

The World Health Organization and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention each tried to investigate how COVID-19 started but came back with inconclusive results.

Other evidence includes the recent release of video showing researchers from the Wuhan Center for Disease Control and Prevention trying to capture bats and collect their guano in a cave near Wuhan in 2019, shortly before the outbreak.

In addition, the Chinese government has ordered its scientists not to discuss the case and declined to release raw data and biological samples requested by international investigators.

“We still don’t have all the answers,” Foster said.

Some of the virologists said determining blame should be a secondary issue. They suggested improving methods for early detection of infectious diseases and responses for combating them.

The threat of further outbreaks is increasing as the human population grows, expanding further into the habitats of animals who could transmit diseases to them, said David Relman, a doctor and fellow at Stanford University’s Center for International Security and Cooperation.

He agreed it was important to determine whether COVID-19 was naturally occurring or man-made but complained about international politics interfering with the investigation.

“It is unfortunate that the origin issue has become grossly politicized,” Relman said.

Evidence that continues to be checked includes wildlife trade in the Wuhan area, human settlements near animals and what Relman called the “unusually risky” work of Wuhan Institute of Virology workers who sometimes handled bats with their bare hands.

COVID-19 has a genetic profile that matches the coronavirus diseases often associated with bats.

“We have only circumstantial evidence” of a laboratory accident, Relman said.

More important is determining how lessons learned from the current pandemic could help prevent “pandemics that will inevitably follow,” he said.

Suzan Murray, program director for the Smithsonian Global Health Program, suggested greater international information-sharing among scientists about potential emerging diseases. It should include making the latest technology for detecting the diseases early available to them, she said.

“Knowledge is power and broadly shared knowledge is absolutely essential to global health,” Murray said.

The World Health Organization requires nations to notify the international community when a disease outbreak starts in their countries but lacks a means of enforcing the rule.

Some lawmakers were intent on finding out what the Chinese government seems to be hiding. The U.S. death toll continued past 607,000 on Wednesday.

“We may never know the origins of COVID-19, thanks in no small part to a lack of cooperation from the Chinese government,” said Rep. Jay Obernolte, R-Calif.

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