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Chinese police stand outside the Wuhan Institute of Virology as WHO staff visit on Feb. 3. Photo: Photo: Hector Retamal/AFP via Getty Images

A U.S. intelligence review into the origins of COVID-19 has reportedly proved inconclusive, even as WHO experts warn that time is running out to do further studies on the question.

Why it matters: We don't need to know how COVID-19 emerged to finally defeat the pandemic, but clearer answers will help prevent the next big outbreak — whether it comes from nature or human action.

Flashback: President Biden launched a review in May after the intelligence community reported that it had "coalesced around two likely scenarios": human contact with an infected animal — what would represent a natural zoonotic spillover — and some kind of lab accident.

  • 90 days later, the intelligence agencies' work, which was presented to Biden on Tuesday, fell short of consensus, according to the Washington Post — meaning the U.S. appears not much closer to a clear answer.

Meanwhile, members of the WHO-led team that visited China earlier this year to investigate the pandemic's origins wrote in Nature on Wednesday that further work had stalled.

  • They warned that "the window is rapidly closing on the biological feasibility" of studies that aim to find the earliest traces of the virus in animals and humans.
  • Because the antibodies that indicate past infections wane over time, any further delay to collecting samples or testing people who might have been exposed before December 2019 "will yield diminishing returns."

Between the lines: Determining the origins of a new disease is difficult, and it can often take years.

  • But the messy geopolitics of COVID-19 have made the search even more fraught.
  • China has been criticized for withholding data about the earliest stages of the pandemic and restricting access to virological labs in Wuhan, where the first large outbreak was detected.

What's next: Little clarity, most likely.

  • While a growing number of scientists are open to the possibility of a lab leak, the WHO team noted in its Nature article that no new data supporting that hypothesis has been published and submitted to the agency yet.
  • Beijing has refused to allow further investigation, and Foreign Ministry officials have implied that the virus might be linked to U.S. research labs — though no evidence supports that hypothesis.

Go deeper

Updated 28 mins ago - Politics & Policy

Coronavirus dashboard

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

  1. Vaccines: Fauci: "I would vaccinate them in a second" — CDC says some immunocompromised people can get fourth COVID shot — FDA panel endorses Pfizer vaccines for 5-11 year olds.
  2. Health: COVID cases fall by 20% — Public health messaging lessons for the next pandemic — Common antidepressant guards against COVID hospitalization, study finds — COVID cases, deaths at meat plants were far higher than previously thought.
  3. Politics: NYC firefighters union urges members to defy mayor's vaccine mandate — Judge rejects Southwest pilots' challenge to vaccine mandate — Louisiana lifts mask mandate except for some schools.
  4. Education: Benefits of vaccine for children outweigh risks, FDA says — Education secretary reveals limits to Biden’s mask push on states — LA extends deadline for school employee vaccinations.
  5. Variant tracker: Where different strains are spreading.
Updated 12 hours ago - Health

NYC firefighters union urges members to defy mayor's vaccine mandate

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio. Photo: Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images

The president of New York City's firefighters union told reporters Wednesday that he's advised unvaccinated members to ignore Mayor Bill de Blasio's COVID-19 vaccine mandate for city workers, per Reuters.

Why it matters: Under de Blasio's order that's due to take effect Friday, unvaccinated city employees would be placed on unpaid leave. But Uniformed Firefighters Association head Andrew Ansbro said he told members that "if they choose to remain unvaccinated, they must still report for duty," according to Reuters.

14 hours ago - Health

Study: Common antidepressant guards against COVID hospitalization

A COVID-19 intensive Care Unit in Rio De Janeiro, Brazil on May 27, 2021. Photo: Fabio Teixeira/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

The readily available antidepressant fluvoxamine significantly reduced COVID-related hospitalizations, according to a large study published Wednesday.

Why it matters: The clinical trial suggests that a cheap, readily available drug could dramatically reduce serious illness and death when prescribed early.