Maria Van Kerkhove has had a crazy, busy week.
The infectious disease epidemiologist who oversees the World Health Organization’s (WHO) program on emerging diseases and zoonoses made a start on Sunday morning: a researcher contacted her, saying colleagues had uncovered crucial new data from China that speaks to the origin of the pandemic. The researcher told Van Kerkhove – who was preparing to leave her home in Geneva for a flight to Oman – that a team led by George Gao, former head of China’s Center for Disease Control and Prevention, had potentially important genetic sequences from samples. investigated. collected in early 2020 at a food market in Wuhan where the first cluster of COVID-19 cases occurred.
Last night, The Atlantic Ocean And Science published the first news stories about the previously undisclosed data, which was Topic A at a WHO press conference this morning. “This data could and should have been shared 3 years ago,” said WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. “We continue to call on China to be transparent in sharing data, conduct necessary investigations and share the results.”
The group that contacted Van Kerkhove found that in June 2022, the Chinese researchers deposited in a virology database called GISAID unprecedented genomic information from samples taken from stalls at Wuhan’s Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market. The sequences, which GISAID told WHO did not become publicly visible to other researchers until Jan. 30 this year, show mixtures of SARS-CoV-2 and several animal species, including raccoon dogs and civets, which China at one point insisted were not were for sale at the market. The samples don’t prove the pandemic started in the marketplace, but the research team who contacted WHO say they support the theory that the virus probably jumped from animals there to humans.
“All the evidence so far points in the same direction,” said Florence Débarre, an evolutionary biologist who came across Gao’s team’s market data while searching GISAID. Many who instead claim that SARS-CoV-2 leaked from a virology lab in Wuhan responded to the new findings by saying humans could have infected animals in the marketplace. But for Débarre, such scenarios rest only on speculation.
During today’s press conference, Tedros complained that the Chinese market data had recently been removed. (Débarre says this happened after she and others informed Gao that they had found the sequences and wanted to collaborate on an analysis. Gao did not respond to Science‘s attempt to clarify what happened.) “These data don’t provide a definitive answer to how the pandemic started, but every piece of data is important in moving us closer to that answer,” Tedros said. “And any piece of data related to studying the origins of COVID-19 should be immediately shared with the international community.”
Van Kerkhove had contacted Gao for explanations right after she was called on Sunday morning, and quickly arranged a confidential meeting to take place Tuesday between Chinese researchers, the team that found the new data, and the World Health Organization’s (WHO) Scientific Advisory Group on Origins. . New Pathogens (SAGO) on Tuesday.
This morning, her time, she stepped out of the COVID-19 meeting she attended in Oman to speak to Science about this surprising twist in the origin probe. Prior to her boss’s concerns about the apparent lack of data disclosure, she said: “It’s inexcusable. The scientific imperative, the importance of public health, the moral importance of this should override everything else that happens and it doesn’t.”
This interview has been shortened for brevity and clarity.
Q: What do you think of what [Débarre and her collaborators] found it?
A: It confirms what was suspected: there were animals on the market that were susceptible to SARS-CoV-2 infection, that the market obviously played a very important role, especially in amplifying the spread of the virus in the early days of the pandemic. The questions that remain are questions that still need to be answered. Where did these animals come from? What additional sampling of animals and environments in markets across Wuhan were conducted in December 2019 and January, February and March 2020? What were the trade routes of these animals? What admixture took place with other species? Has serology been done, either on animals or on humans who worked in these markets? None of that information is available. This gives more evidence of intermediate hosts, but it doesn’t answer everything, and it doesn’t dispel other hypotheses yet.
Q: Why was this data not made available earlier?
A: That is the question. Why was this data not shared and analyzed with Chinese scientists? We have called for all data to be made available. There’s obviously more data out there. What isn’t clear is what else is out there.
Q: You and the WHO are in a position to say that all the origin hypotheses are on the table and they’re kind of taking a neutral stance. But at what point does the data ask the WHO, “Hey, what’s the difference between the two leading hypotheses?”
A: To say that all hypotheses are on the table does not mean that all hypotheses carry equal weight. We need to look at what we have access to, all the available data out there. There is a varying story. We know more information is available. But of course, looking at all the available data, it suggests that we are much more likely to have a zoonotic origin. The challenge is that we cannot take the other hypotheses off the table without having evidence for them.
Q: There’s also the problem of not being able to prove a negative.
A: There are so many additional bits of information that would be really helpful in understanding the story. The fact is we have very little information or anything new from the Wuhan lab that worked with coronaviruses – it’s just enough to keep that alive and we don’t have China’s cooperation to be able to evaluate and take it off the table or not .
Question: Does this new data have any impact on how you weigh this up?
A: Certainly. But to date, Chinese colleagues have told us that no animal has tested positive for SARS-CoV-2 in China.
Q: China told an international team of scientists on a WHO-sponsored COVID-19 mission in 2021 that it had tested some 80,000 animals for the pandemic virus, but that many animals were zoo animals and livestock completely unrelated to it. had to do. How many raccoon dogs are in that report?
A: We insist on more information through SAGO. We were told that additional studies have been done, including animals susceptible to SARS-CoV-2. That they tell us that no animal has tested positive? There are mink farms there, the raccoon dogs, the civets, there are a lot of animals there. It questions their credibility no matter what I told them. It’s beyond irritating and frustrating to be in this position and later to learn that this data exists, to learn that this analysis could have been done in March 2020 if we had an environment where collaboration could have happened. We still don’t have that. And that is scary as hell.
Q: Has the team that found the new data contacted Gao to collaborate on this?
A: We facilitated the interaction through SAGO so that they could have that conversation directly. As far as I know they haven’t responded yet. But the fact that we have individuals who have been in a situation where it is this clandestine search should not be so. And this shouldn’t play out on social media and in the media. This should result in a robust debate with everything on the table.
Q: The evidence has consistently suggested to me that the message from China is that it has nothing to do with origin, be it a lab leak or an infected animal.
A: They plainly said so. To me, as a scientist, as a public health professional, as someone who works for the World Health Organization, where our only purpose is to keep people safe and prevent these things from happening in the first place, the fact that we’ve had tens of millions of people die from something like this and that the constant strife and politicization of this actually does not allow us to do our job. It’s a distraction and it’s unconscionable to me.
Q: How would knowing the origin make a difference?
A: By understanding the exact circumstances in which this happened, we can become more sophisticated about how to avoid it in the future. Yes, we already know that we need to pay attention to biosecurity on farms, biosecurity and biosecurity in laboratories. Yes, we know about live animal markets and disinfection in the markets themselves. There is supervision that needs to be done there. Yes, we all know that. But we also need to understand how this particular event happened, in a country with excellent laboratory systems, with a post-SARS fever monitoring system [severe acute respiratory syndrome], which has capable scientists who can do this. And why don’t we look at the incentives and disincentives to addressing all of that?
Q: The new data revealed this week challenges people who say, “Oh, we’ll never know the origin.”
A: Nobody knows if we will or not. And we’ve learned through the pandemic that anyone who speaks with absolute certainty really doesn’t know. This is a clue and it’s an important one.