With booming cases in the United States and elsewhere, the Covid-19 pandemic is far from over – but with three vaccines reporting trial data and two apparently in the process of being approved by the United States Food and Drug Administration, it could reach a pivotal point. In what feels like a moment of breath and take stock, international researchers are turning their attention from the present to the onset of the pandemic, in a bid to unravel its origin and ask what lessons can be learned to prevent this from happening. reproduce.
Two efforts are taking place in parallel. On November 5, the World Health Organization published rules of engagement for a long-planned and months-delayed mission that creates a multinational team of researchers to look into how the virus jumped into the species. Meanwhile, last week a commission created by The Lancet and led by economist and political expert Jeffrey Sachs announced the formation of his own international effort, a intervention force 12 experts from nine countries who will undertake similar tasks.
Both groups will face the same complex issues. It has been about a year since the first cases of pneumonia of unknown origin appeared in Wuhan, China, and about 11 months since the cause of the pneumonia was identified as a novel coronavirus, possibly originating in bats. Experts will have to trace a chain of transmission – one or more jumps of the virus from the animal world to humans – using interviews, stored biological samples, laboratory analyzes, environmental surveys, data genomics and thousands of articles published since the pandemic. started, while following a trail that could have turned cold.
It’s not about looking for patient zero, the first person infected – or even a hypothetical zero bat, the only animal from which the new virus jumped. It is likely that none of these will ever be found. Rather, the goal is to elucidate the ecosystem – physical, but also viral – in which the overflow occurred and ask what might make it likely to recur.
“It’s not just about going to a market and taking samples and testing,” says Peter Daszak, president of the non-profit research organization EcoHealth Alliance, which heads the Lancet commission working group. “It’s about what is changing on the ground in the region, in terms of the ecology of viruses and the social science of contact with wildlife – back to SARS – and asking what research has been done that could have been used to protect us, and was done or not.
The effort is not going to sound like disease detection stories clad in moon suits, Daszak says, not least because, at the moment, teams still cannot make it to China. And, intellectually, it won’t play out like them either.
“There is a disconnect between what the public thinks is going on in missions like this and what can be done,” he says. “You would expect to hold up a magnifying glass and find the smoking gun, a criminal law approach. But we’re never going to be beyond a reasonable doubt with the origins of Covid. Science doesn’t work like that. Science is working on the civil law approach: where is the preponderance of evidence? “
Sachs, who chose Daszak to chair the task force, agrees. The objective, he wrote by e-mail, is not “a forensic investigation … It is a scientific evaluation”.
“The team will review the world literature comprehensively and from multiple perspectives (ecology, virology, public health practices) and do their best to engage with Chinese public health leaders and scientists,” a- he declared. “The team will also invite contributions from those who wish to submit information or who have advanced particular theories or possibilities on the origins of SARS-CoV-2.”