COVID-19: the thesis of a lab leak deserves further study

The thesis of the virus of COVID-19 escaped from a laboratory in China deserves "further research", say Thursday experts appointed by the WHO, who insist on the absence for the moment of definitive proof on the origin.

COVID-19: the thesis of a lab leak deserves further study

The thesis of the virus of COVID-19 escaped from a laboratory in China deserves "further research", say Thursday experts appointed by the WHO, who insist on the absence for the moment of definitive proof on the origin. of the pandemic, whatever the scenario considered.

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These 27 experts covering a wide range of disciplines have also drawn up a list of additional studies to be carried out on the theory of a passage of the COVID-19 virus from bats to humans through an animal. intermediate, unidentified.

“This preliminary report is not intended – and indeed it does not – to provide definitive conclusions on the origins of Sars-Cov2 because more information is needed from the studies that the report recommends”, warn experts from the Scientific Advisory Group on the Origins of New Pathogens (SAGO).

SAGO's mission goes far beyond the framework of the sole investigation of the origins of COVID-19 and it must above all establish a catalog of best practices to enable better and faster detection of the vector of the next pandemic.

But attention is naturally focused on the origin of Sars-Cov2, a virus which has killed fifteen million people according to the WHO, since the first cases identified in the Chinese city of Wuhan at the end of 2019.

The debate on origins is virulent in the scientific community, but it has above all taken on a political dimension which complicates the investigation.

A first mixed group of international and Chinese scientists, who had investigated in China at the beginning of 2021 after long negotiations with the authorities, had favored the thesis of the intermediate animal and the departure from a market in Wuhan.

He had caused an uproar by almost dismissing the thesis of the leak of a laboratory in this city - despite a lack of data - to the point of forcing the boss of the WHO, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus to put it back on the table.

Three SAGO experts from China, Brazil and Russia felt that there was no need to pursue this track.

"Just because we're talking about it doesn't mean we think it's the explanation," said SAGO president Marietjie Venter, who believes that for the time being "the strongest clues point to a zoonosis. ".

But "we must have an open mind and cover all the hypotheses", including that of the leak of a laboratory, added the co-president, Jean-Claude Manuguerra, during a press briefing.

And more than two and a half years after the start of the crisis, the SAGO recognizes "that key data are still missing to understand how the COVID-19 pandemic started" even if progress has been made for example on the identification of animals likely to play the role of intermediary.

Verifications are also underway on possible cases outside China before those detected in Wuhan, in particular in Italy, but also in France and the United States.

The group stressed that it “had access only to information made available to it in published documents or presentations” by visiting scientists, in particular Chinese, and not to raw data.

He therefore draws up a long list of wishes of several pages detailing the additional studies necessary in his eyes to try to move forward in the investigation.

The active collaboration of the Chinese authorities will be necessary for a good number of these requests, including on the laboratory component, an ultra-sensitive subject.

"We do not have the mandate to enter a country, anywhere in the world, and we need the collaboration and cooperation of countries" to carry out these investigations, recalled Maria van Kerkhove, who oversees the fight against COVID-19 at WHO.

“We will continue to work with our colleagues in China to see how we can move forward on each of the studies that have been recommended” in the report, she assured.

Dr Tedros for his part insisted that it was crucial that the work of scientists to determine the origins of COVID “be completely separated from politics”.

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