Two years after the first cases of the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus, scientists reignite the debate about the origin of the infectious agent. Among the hypotheses is that the virus could have leaked from a laboratory in the United States or China. The possibility also remains that it arose in a wild animal and later infected the first humans.
Published in scientific journal The Lancetthe comprehensive and controversial study on the origin of the pandemic was led by the publication’s Covid-19 Commission and brings together more than 170 researchers from around the world.
In addition to discussing possible hypotheses about the origin of the coronavirus, the report points out errors in dealing with the pandemic. For example, international coordination between countries to control transmissions of the virus was lacking and many governments proved to be “unreliable and ineffective”.
Scientists also criticized the World Health Organization (WHO), claiming that the body “acted very cautiously and slowly” at times that called for urgency. To circumvent these problems in an upcoming pandemic, the group asks for an increase in funding directed to the WHO.
Origin of the covid virus under discussion again
“The origin of SARS-CoV-2 remains unknown,” say the scientists responsible for the report. For the group, there are two main hypotheses:
- First hypothesis: the covid-19 virus emerged from “a zoonotic spillover of wildlife or a farm animal, possibly through a market [de animais]in a still undetermined location;
- Second hypothesis: the virus emerged from “a research-related incident, during virus collection in the field or through a laboratory-associated leak”.
In the report, the authors stress that “the commissioners had mixed opinions about the relative probabilities of the two explanations, and both possibilities require further scientific investigation. Identifying the origin of the virus will help prevent future pandemics and strengthen public trust in science and in public authorities”.
Could the coronavirus have arisen in wild animals?
Among the arguments defending the natural origin of the coronavirus are “the discoveries of viruses similar to SARS-CoV-2 in bats in East Asia”, according to the scientists. This is the most accepted version of the emergence of the infectious agent.
Here, the research team recalls that “the dangers of zoonotic spillovers are heightened by human encroachments on the habitats of animals that carry new pathogens, through deforestation, handling of exotic animals in the illicit wildlife trade, on farms that raise domestic animals and in food markets that sell and slaughter live animals”.
In recent years, these activities have been intensified across the globe. Faced with these risk behaviors — which are not only related to covid-19 — the Oswaldo Cruz Foundation (Fiocruz) points out that at least seven Brazilian states are at high risk for zoonosis outbreaks, which could mark the beginning of a next pandemic. .
Could the pandemic have started after a laboratory leak in the US?
Now, the other hypothesis could originate from “a research-related or laboratory-associated release of the pathogen. Such a pathway could have involved a researcher being infected in the field or in the laboratory with a natural virus, or infected in the laboratory with a genetically manipulated”, say the authors of the controversial report.
According to the research group, “Advances in biotechnology over the past two decades have made it possible to create new and highly dangerous pathogens through genetic manipulation — for example, creating chimeric viruses.” These combine the genetic material of different viruses and may even have extra genes added.
In this line of reasoning, the authors explain that studies on SARS-CoV — note that this is another virus, a relative of SARS-CoV-2 —, during the SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) outbreak in the 2000s, popularized the bioengineering of coronaviruses and their respective studies in the world, including in the USA or China.
Why specifically from the US?
Here, the discussion does not necessarily revolve around virology laboratories, located in the city of Wuhan, China. That’s because US labs also manipulated SARS-CoV, according to preliminary information.
“Independent researchers have not yet investigated US laboratories involved in laboratory manipulation of SARS-CoV-like viruses, nor have they investigated the details of laboratory research that was ongoing in Wuhan,” the report authors state.
“Furthermore, the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) were reluctant to release details of the SARS-CoV-related virus research they had been supporting,” they add. According to the group, details were only shared following court orders.
More independent studies are still needed
Despite the hypotheses, the consensus of the scientists involved in the journal’s report The Lancet is that evidence is lacking to confirm either possibility. “No independent, transparent, science-based investigation has been carried out into the bioengineering of SARS-like viruses that was ongoing before the Covid-19 outbreak,” they point out.
“In summary, there are many potential origins of SARS-CoV-2, but there is still a deficit of independent, scientific and collaborative work on the subject. The search for the origins of the virus requires impartial, independent, transparent and rigorous work by international teams. in the areas of virology, epidemiology, bioinformatics and other related areas, and supported by all governments”, they complete.
Source: The Lancet