|Scientists struggle to probe COVID’s origins amid sparse data from China
Scientists are anxious to obtain more data on the earliest days of the pandemic, following three tantalizing reports posted online in the past few weeks1,2,3. Although not yet published in peer-reviewed journals, the preprints provide further evidence supporting the hypothesis that the coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 spread from animals to people who raised, butchered or bought them. But the reports don’t reveal exactly what happened.To get more news about coronavirus in china update, you can visit shine news official website.|
The World Health Organization’s (WHO’s) Scientific Advisory Group for the Origins of Novel Pathogens (SAGO) will soon put out a report specifying studies that are urgently needed, says Maria Van Kerkhove, an epidemiologist at the WHO. A principal ask in light of the new preprints is to collect and analyse samples from farmers and wildlife at farms that supplied the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market in Wuhan — to which many early COVID-19 cases were traced and where coronavirus samples from January 2020 were concentrated — as well as from market vendors. The WHO made these suggestions a year ago, but the studies either haven’t been conducted or haven’t been published. The scientific community has grown frustrated with the wait as the world seeks answers to help prevent future pandemics.
Researchers in the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia who have worked closely with colleagues in China have told Nature that they’re disappointed by the slow release of information from China about COVID-19’s origins. “We are all trying to find out what the bloody hell happened, but we are hamstrung by the data available,” says Edward Holmes, a virologist at the University of Sydney in Australia and a co-author of two of the latest preprints2,3.
Some Chinese scientists say that they, too, would like to see more origin studies, but that the topic is politically sensitive. In March 2020, a directive from the Chinese government — highlighted by the Associated Press — instructed researchers at universities, companies and medical institutions to have all studies on COVID-19 vetted by government research units and then published under the direction of public opinion teams. Those who don’t follow procedures, the document warned, “shall be held accountable”. Investigations of an outbreak’s origins usually take many years to reach a conclusion, if one is ever reached. But the scientific community fears that political barriers are holding this one up — and they’re unsure of the best way to expedite matters. Van Kerkhove says that SAGO will continue to outline the most pertinent studies needed, and to offer help with analyses. Until these happen, she warns that gaps in knowledge will allow damaging and scientifically unsupported theories to flourish. “If we don’t get the information we need,” Van Kerkhove says, “then there’s a space to fill, and people will fill that space with assumptions.”
In a recent example, pundits and officials in the United States and China have linked unsupported allegations about COVID-19’s origins to conspiracy theories about Ukrainian ‘biolabs’, says Yanzhong Huang, a specialist on China and global health at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York City. “All of these accusations poison the water and make an earnest search for answers to the origin of the pandemic even harder.”
Chinese authorities closed the Huanan market on 1 January 2020, after physicians in China reported that many of the people they were treating for a mysterious form of pneumonia had worked there or visited it soon before falling ill. Researchers in China leapt to investigate. On 22 January 2020, the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that 33 of 585 swabs taken from around the market tested positive for SARS-CoV-2, and that these samples were concentrated in two aisles of stalls where wild animals were sold. “It is highly suspected that the current epidemic is related to the trade of wild animals,” the report said.
Investigators also collected samples from stray cats, mice and slabs of frozen and refrigerated seafood and meat, all of which tested negative for the virus. They continued to collect specimens for the next couple of months, but none seem to have been from wildlife sold at the Huanan market, or from farms that reared wildlife to be sold there for food, medicine or fur.
When an international team of researchers assembled by the WHO and the Chinese government set out to study the pandemic’s origins in China in late January 2021, they asked about wildlife farms supplying Wuhan’s markets. Chinese researchers handed the team a list of farms that included several in southern China. This is a region where a close relative of SARS-CoV-2 has been found in bats4, notes Peter Daszak, one of the researchers on the team and president of EcoHealth Alliance, a scientific organization in New York City that has collaborated on coronavirus research with the Wuhan Institute of Virology. But the team didn’t visit the farms, and Daszak was told that they hadn’t been studied because the farms were shuttered following a ban on the consumption of wild animals in February 2020.
What’s more, he says, when the team drafted a report on its investigation, some Chinese researchers and officials with China’s foreign ministry wanted to change parts of it that discussed the sale of wild animals at the Huanan market. “We went into a room at 9:30 a.m. to talk about their changes — the rule was that any unpublished evidence had to be agreed upon,” he says. “We were there until 4:30 a.m., arguing for almost 24 hours. Some people were sleeping, some had gone home.”
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