At the end of October, a team of researchers from the World Health Organization (WHO) finally sat down – virtually – with a group of Chinese experts to kick-off a long-term in-depth study into the origins of the coronavirus and how it entered the human population.
Next month – a year after China reported its first death in Wuhan from what was then considered a “mysterious” new illness – the 10 international experts from Denmark to Qatar will finally travel to the country to make in-depth “epidemiologic, virologic, serologic assessments” of people and animals.
Under the supervision of the WHO and the government of China, the team will travel to central China to gather evidence and explore how the virus appeared in the city, laying the groundwork for further study into how and where COVID-19 might have begun.
“The current COVID-19 pandemic shows the devastating impact emerging zoonotic diseases can have on societies,” the study’s terms of reference read. “As the pandemic continues to unfold, understanding how the epidemic began is essential to prevent further SARS-CoV-2 virus introductions and help prevent introductions of new viruses in the future.”
The experts will build on research conducted over the past year, as well as historic data from the SARS-CoV-1 outbreak in 2002, to work out how the new coronavirus, known as SARS-CoV-2, first emerged in animal hosts and later spread to humans.
But as the trip gets nearer, the origins of the virus are being hotly contested by one of the study’s key partners – the government of China – underlining the political nature of the pandemic and the challenges of investigating the origins of a disease that has now killed more than 1.7 million people around the world and devastated economies.
Cases of the coronavirus first began appearing in Wuhan in late 2019, with Chinese media reporting the existence of a “mysterious” new respiratory illness among the city’s residents and suggesting a link to the Huanan market, which sold seafood but also a wide range of other animals including exotic wildlife.
The first phase of the study will look at one of the most important and confounding questions of the COVID-19 outbreak: what role did the market play in the outbreak – if any – and how did the virus get there in the first place?
The WHO has already admitted that despite ongoing research “very little is currently known about how, where and when the virus started circulation in Wuhan,” according to the terms of reference but a lack of preliminary data from the early days of the outbreak, including the type and number of animals sold in Huanan as well as the travel history and other exposure factors of the people who worked and shopped there might make it a difficult question to answer.
It is still unclear if the market was a “contamination source, acted as an amplifier for human-to-human transmission, or a combination of those factors,” WHO said in the terms of reference.
Much of the challenge comes from the fact that much of the evidence was lost when health authorities sealed the market off and disposed of what was there, leaving little for the first scientists who travelled to the city when the outbreak was first reported.
Whether the absence of data was deliberate is also unknown, although University of Hong Kong microbiologist Yuen Kwok-yung, told broadcaster the BBC in July there was “nothing to see” when he and other researchers went there in mid-January as part of an exploratory mission for China’s National Health Commission. The market had been cleaned up like a “crime scene”, he said.
While the market’s role in the worst pandemic in a century remains unclear, more progress has been made in answering questions about when COVID-19 first emerged in humans.