Why Covid origin study should not be limited to one country, region

Ever since the outbreak of the covid-19 pandemic, there is a subject that has refused to go away – the origin of the deadly pathogen.

This is the case even though a majority of scientists believe the cause has been established.

Early last year, a team of experts assembled by the World Health Organization and dispatched to Wuhan in China, where the first case was reported, delivered a verdict.

After their tour of duty, the scientists drawn from multiple countries and who include those who specialized in tropical disease epidemiology and viral evolution concluded that it was ‘highly unlikely’ that the virus had leaked from a laboratory.

An Australian scientist, who was on the ground in Wuhan when experts believe the virus, now known as SARS-CoV-2, was beginning to spread, has said she doesn’t believe the lab-leak theory.

Instead, the virologist believes that the virus most likely came from a natural source. She recently expressed concern that the lab in question had been portrayed contrary to its day-to-day operations. She noted that ‘half-truths and distorted information’ have obscured an accurate account of the lab’s functions and activities.

Add that to sentiments expressed by French biosecurity expert Gabriel Gras who was categorical that “the theory that the virus escaped from Wuhan lab is not credible.”

Gras was one of the people who supervised the lab’s construction and accreditation.

Not long ago, another team of scientists wrote on The Lancet, saying: “We stand together to strongly condemn conspiracy theories suggesting that COVID-19 does not have a natural origin.”

They maintained that ‘science, not speculation’ is essential to determine how the virus reached humans.

Amid all these clear-the-air messages, there is still an ongoing push for another probe into a possible lab leak in Wuhan. The idea is yet to be received well by many primarily because it requires a clear scientific proof, which is yet to materialize. Indeed, there has been no new evidence to suggest the virus originated from the lab.

WHO has indicated plans to institute another round of studies to ascertain the covid-19 origin, and which now shapes the public debate. Some countries led by the US are also pushing the Tedros Adhanom-led health agency to begin this next probe in China. Yet, it will be remembered that China already opened its doors to the international community and facilitated the initial joint probe.

China says it is not opposed to the next phase of origin studies. It however maintains it must be guided by the World Health Assembly (WHA) resolution, emphasizing reliance on science, and evidence-based research.

China is adamant that the probe must be extended to other parts of the world rather than concentrate all efforts in its territory when there is ‘evidence suggesting the virus might have been in circulation in other countries’ way before it was first detected in China.

It is easy to understand China’s argument. There is nothing to suggest that if another probe is instituted and strictly restricted to China, the result will be different. It will amount to a waste of both time and resources, at a time both are so much needed to deal with the pandemic that has so far claimed many lives.

In fact, the more the world engages in back and forth over what might have given rise to the virus, many more lives are being put in danger. Not to mention economies that have also been shaken to the core.

There should be an urgency to fight the virus through international solidarity. Getting vaccines to populations, especially in vulnerable countries in the developing world looks like the most sensible thing to do at the moment.

What could be the motivating factor in calling for a fresh probe in China? Is it the usual politics pitting the West and East? If so, can they be shelved for now?

The current state of affairs means only science takes center stage. Nothing else should be given room. The current trend suggests, there was a plot to blame China from the beginning. And some have found it hard to move on from this.

It is also worth mentioning that while certain nations continue this debate, China has been doing a lot to assist countries to overcome the pandemic. From donations of vaccines to medical equipment, Beijing has been channeling the much-needed support to needy countries while some of the wealthier nations have embraced “vaccine nationalism,”

Back to virus origin tracing, the onslaught against China has seen its citizens sign a petition seeking to compel the US to allow investigation into the activities of a laboratory in Fort Detrick as well. This according to China will rule out mischief on the part of America.

A previous study also raised the possibility that the virus-causing covid could have been circulating in Europe as early as September.

Hard stance, accusations, and counter-accusations by the two largest economies in the world do not augur well in the fight against the virus. The earlier they join forces and lead the way in virus fight, the better for the world. There is a pressing need to tackle the disease that keeps mutating as opposed to where it might have originated from.

Tracing the origin, yes, is important, for a better future response to pandemics. But to avoid being seen as a mission against any one nation or region, scientists should be allowed to get to the bottom of this, and the net should be cast wider with probes being undertaken in multiple locations, especially those that were first to detect the virus.

And for the second phase of studies into origins to be successful, the WHO must also ensure that all the member states are in agreement. This way, it will get all the support and facilitation it needs to conduct a thorough and conclusive probe.

The writer is a Multimedia Journalist with Kenya Broadcasting Corporation (KBC).

The views expressed in this article don’t necessarily represent KBC’s opinion.


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