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The Wuhan Institute of Virology. Photo: Hector Retamal/AFP via Getty Images

As the world nears two years after the first reported cases of COVID-19 in Wuhan, China, there's still a lot more we don't know about SARS-CoV-2's origins than we do know.

Why it matters: Accurately determining the causes of COVID-19 will go a long way toward informing what can and should be done to prevent the next pandemic.

Driving the news: Earlier this week, the Wall Street Journal reported the WHO is reviving its stalled investigation into the origins of COVID-19, while a separate academic task force looking into the same question was disbanded over concerns about bias.

  • At this point, there is no smoking gun in favor of either of the two main theories — that SARS-CoV-2 emerged in animals before spreading to people, or that it originated in lab work done at the Wuhan Institute of Virology — but plenty of circumstantial evidence for both.

What they're saying: On Thursday morning, Science magazine convened a rare roundtable featuring scientists from both sides of the debate.

  • A major problem is "we can't really say how the virus got to Wuhan," said Jesse Bloom, an evolutionary biologist at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center, adding there is "not a high, or any natural prevalence of viruses closely related to SARS-CoV-2 in Wuhan."
  • That fact — and that the Wuhan Institute of Virology was working with samples taken from bats that have a high risk of harboring COVID-like coronaviruses — "is why I continue to think a lab leak is highly probable," Bloom said.

The other side: Michael Worobey, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Arizona, argued there were "so many more opportunities for non-research-connected activity to bring these viruses" to Wuhan, such as via China's robust wildlife trade.

  • The political disputes between the U.S. and China have also made it hard to fairly judge the origins, argued Linfa Wang, a professor at Duke-NUS Medical School in Singapore.
  • "You're guilty because you're in Wuhan," he said. "That's it."

The bottom line: With time running out to gather more evidence — and the Chinese government stonewalling further efforts — the chance of finding a definitive answer is dwindling.

  • But one lesson for the future is clear, as Bloom put it: "We need more transparency."

Go deeper

Updated 6 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Omicron dashboard

Illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios

  1. Health: Coronavirus variant surveillance varies widely by state — Omicron cases confirmed in 5 U.S. states America probably won't lead the effort to understand Omicron.
  2. Vaccines: Omicron adds urgency to vaccinating world — Omicron fuels the case for COVID boosters — Moderna loses patent battles tied to COVID vaccine.
  3. Politics: Nevada to impose insurance surcharge on unvaccinated state workers — New Jersey GOP lawmakers defy statehouse COVID policy — Oklahoma sues Biden administration over Pentagon vaccine mandate — Omicron travel bans are sign of what's to come.
  4. World: WHO: Delta health measures help fight Omicron — COVID cases surge in South Africa in sign Omicron wave is coming — Germany approves new restrictions for unvaccinated people.
  5. Variant tracker: Where different strains are spreading.
Dec 2, 2021 - World

Germany approves new restrictions for unvaccinated people

Photo: John MacDougall - Pool/Getty Images

German Chancellor Angela Merkel said Thursday that people who are unvaccinated will not be allowed in nonessential shops, cultural and recreational venues, AP reports.

State of play: Merkel, alongside incoming Chancellor Olaf Scholz, said the measures were necessary to avoid overflowing hospitals with coronavirus patients. The country is seeing an increase in daily infections.

Updated 22 hours ago - Health

Omicron cases confirmed in 5 U.S. states

A healthcare worker inserts a Covid-19 rapid test into a machine in Denver, Colorado. Photo: Daniel Brenner/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Hawaii became on Thursday the fifth state to confirm the newly discovered Omicron variant after New York announced five new cases earlier in the day.

The latest: In Hawaii, the variant was found in an unvaccinated O'ahu resident with moderate symptoms who had previously been infected with COVID-19, per a state health department statement. The variant has also been confirmed in California, Colorado and Minnesota.