The highly anticipated WHO report on the origin of SARS-CoV-2 was released on March 30. 34 international and Chinese multidisciplinary experts reviewed hundreds of thousands of items of epidemiological, clinical, and genomic data, some dating back to 2015, and the corresponding plausibility of four origin hypotheses: direct zoonotic spillover, zoonotic transmission via an intermediate host, importation via food in the cold chain, and accidental laboratory release. Although, the report is preliminary overall, it concludes that the most likely route of SARS-CoV-2 emergence was from a bat lineage via an unidentified intermediate host with more frequent human contact, in which the progenitor virus might have been circulating undetected for decades. Nevertheless, according to WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, “all hypotheses remain on the table”.
The report, or more accurately the work and organisation that produced it, has already been criticised for not going far enough, the methodology not being transparent enough, and being too late. Speculations have been made that the Chinese Government’s close supervision of the process, from visa arrangements through data access to the physical whereabouts of the international team at all times, have precluded meaningful conclusions. Indeed, one wonders how much can truly be achieved by 17 individuals who spend 2 weeks in quarantine and 2 weeks at exclusively pre-arranged, chaperoned meetings? 14 WHO member states have already issued a statement calling for an independent, transparent investigation with full access to raw data, which were often not available. Critics also point towards the report’s supposed legitimising of the cold-chain hypothesis advocated by Chinese state media that leaves open the possibility that the virus originated elsewhere. Still, because of ongoing tensions between political spheres of influence, an investigation led by a USA–EU consortium is unlikely to be as independent as it might like to appear. Across the Lancet journals, we remember the urgency and gravity with which Chinese scientists prepared the first papers describing COVID-19 to alert the world of the impending threat. Zoonotic transmission of pathogens has accompanied humanity throughout its existence and can happen anywhere, whereas the report shows that the cold-chain hypothesis is rather unlikely, on the basis of available data so far. WHO have been criticised for not holding China accountable but, as others have pointed out, its member states have given it practically no mandate to do so…Readmore