WHO to sift Chinese language samples, information in hunt for virus origins

WHO to sift Chinese samples, data in hunt for virus origins

Fabian Leendertz, a biologist who specializes in emerging diseases at the Robert Koch Institute, speaks during an interview with the Associated Press in Falkensee near Berlin on Tuesday, December 15, 2020. (AP Photo / Michael Sohn)

A German scientist who is part of a small team of experts put together by the World Health Organization to investigate the origins of the coronavirus plans to sift through samples and medical data from China to determine where the beetle first moves from animals to humans and humans jumped from what kind it came.

Finding the source of the new coronavirus has resulted in cover-ups and fueled political tensions, particularly between President Donald Trump's U.S. administration and Beijing. Most researchers believe the virus, also known as SARS-CoV-2, came from animals in China, likely bats, and the WHO has put together a team of 10 to look into the science.

Mission member Fabian Leendertz, a biologist at the Robert Koch Institute in Germany who specializes in emerging diseases, said the goal is to collect data to be better prepared for possible future outbreaks.

"It's really not about finding a guilty country," said Leendertz. "The point is to understand what happened and then see if that data can be used to try to reduce the risk in the future."

In an interview with The Associated Press on Tuesday, Leendertz said the team has already started discussions with scientists in China and is expecting to travel to the country next month. You'll likely start in Wuhan, where the outbreak was first reported, although an exact itinerary has not yet been established.

Leendertz, who was part of a previous mission to track down the origins of an Ebola outbreak in West Africa, said he "would love to be an Indiana Jones mission," with scientists doing groundbreaking fieldwork, "it's more ( …) a teamwork with Chinese colleagues to identify the next necessary steps and to proceed, "he said.

One of the difficulties is that those who contract COVID-19 may have a wide range of symptoms similar to flu or other illnesses, or no symptoms at all. This makes tracking the chain of infection much more difficult than Ebola, which has clear and dramatic symptoms that people remember.

According to Leendertz, scientists would check whether stored medical samples from the time before the first known case provide evidence that the virus is circulating earlier than previously thought.

"Then to see where this road is going, whether it's a different city or whether it stays in Wuhan or where it is going," he said.

Another question will be to examine the famous market in Wuhan, which was identified early on as a possible place for the leap from animals to humans.

"It could also be just the first mega-spreading event or one of the first," he said.

Tracking down the animal in which the virus appeared will be key, and to do this the group will need to collect samples from other bat species and other animals that may be harboring the microbe.

Leendertz said the team was not informed of any restrictions on their work in China through the two-week quarantine all travelers are currently facing. Overall, the mission is expected to take four to five weeks, he said.

"There will be a report from that mission, but I'm pretty sure (it) won't give the full answer," he said, adding that further research is likely to be needed.

Leendertz expressed his confidence in China's "excellent researchers", saying that data gathered by the country's comprehensive disease surveillance system would likely prove valuable.

"Also x-rays from the hospitals – we now know exactly what COVID-19 patients look like. … So that could also be an indication," he said.

"The big margin is to find out what happened," said Leendertz. "How the virus jumped from which animal to an intermediate host and then to humans. To reconstruct the scenario."

"The more you know why these spillover events are occurring, the better you will be able to assess whether countermeasures can be taken to prevent such transmissions in the future."

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