Mar 6, 2021 - Health

Why we need to know COVID's origins

The WHO's headquarters in Geneva.

The WHO's headquarters in Geneva. Photo: Fabrice Coffrini/AFP via Getty Images

Geopolitical tensions are foiling efforts to get to the bottom of how COVID-19 originated.

Why it matters: Insights into how COVID-19 began can help us prevent future pandemics — especially if it involved any kind of leak or accident at a virology lab.

Driving the news: The findings of a WHO-led mission to Wuhan, China, earlier this year to investigate the origins of COVID-19 are expected by mid-March, officials from the health agency said in a press conference Friday, after plans for an interim report were apparently scrapped.

Context: The WHO team received international criticism when its members concluded in a press conference at the end of its trip that a lab accident was "extremely unlikely" while remaining open to the possibility — promoted by Beijing — that the virus originated elsewhere and had been introduced to China via contaminated frozen food.

Be smart: The most likely explanation still remains the simplest: The coronavirus jumped from an animal host in China to humans, the kind of zoonotic spillover seen in countless other emerging outbreaks.

  • But a pandemic threat from lab leaks is real, and as our ability to manipulate viruses grows, so will that danger.
  • While we're limited in our ability to prevent zoonotic spillovers, we can and should be able to do much more to monitor and regulate the kind of research that could lead to the accidental introduction of a new virus.

The bottom line: Without much better transparency, we're unlikely to ever know for sure how COVID-19 began — and what steps we need to take to prevent it from happening again.

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