New evidence suggests pandemic came from nature, not a lab, panel says
By Oksana Zayachkivska, MD, PhD, DSc
Professor of Physiology, AUHS School of Medicine
This is essentially the title of a recent editorial in Science (1), one of the most prestigious scientific journals of the world (Fig. 1). Namely, soon after the outbreak of the coronavirus disease of 2019 (COVID-19), caused by the new SARS-CoV-2 virus, pandemic speculations started about the origins of the rapidly spreading disease, i.e., did it come from the wheat market, where raw meat originating from wild animals has been sold in Wuhan, China. Or was the SARS-CoV-2 virus created in the well-known Wuhan Institute of Virology from which it escaped (e.g., by the contamination of researchers who worked there)? The scientific and public debate continued over many months, especially after the site-inspection committee, put together by the World Health Organization (WHO) could not reach a uniform conclusion about the origin of the SARS-CoV-2. Now, a seminal multidisciplinary paper published in the well-respected Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) on October 10, 2022 concluded that “increasing scientific evidence concerning the origins of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus-2 (SARS-CoV-2) is most consistent with a zoonotic origin and a spillover pathway from wildlife to people via wildlife farming and the wildlife trade” (2). Subsequently, a scientific panel was put together that also confirmed the conclusion of the Keusch et al. study (2). The main findings were then summarized in the editorial of Science, & more recently reviewed in the respected British weekly The Economist (3).
Coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 belongs to RNA viruses which are widely distributed in the human population from the 1990-s. It is a fact that they are responsible for the creation 3 recent epidemics/pandemics: 2002, 2012, and 2019 (Fig.2). It is also a known fact that the SARS-CoV-2 outbreaks which created the COVID-19 pandemic have been identified in bats on sale at the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market in Wuhan (China). From the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, there were alternative hypotheses for the emergence of SARS-CoV-2 postulated that it was constructed, cultured, or experimentally manipulated in a laboratory or was associated with field surveillance of bats, leading to an intentional or accidental release.
The recent paper from a group of authors (Keusch GT, and co-workers) (2) discusses the likelihood that SARS-CoV-2 was created in a laboratory or distributed from wild animals. It is now widely considered very probable that the emergence of the virus came via wildlife farms and the wildlife trade, including by the US intelligence community (https://www.dni.gov/files/ODNI/documents/assessments/Unclassified-Summary-of-Assessment-on-COVID-19-Origins.pdf). However, laboratory accidents do happen, and no independent formal audit of the Wuhan laboratory facilities has been possible in the wake of geopolitical conflicts. The authors also present several critical control points about the farming and trade of wildlife to prevent wildlife spillovers (Fig.3), as well as approaches to implement principles about targeted surveillance at the animal-human interfaces at these sites. Furthermore, they suggest innovating new strategies and methods for risk assessment of surveillance, the importance of investment in translational research for priority viruses and virus families with high epidemic or pandemic potential.
Symbiosis of efforts of cross-disciplinary collaborative research and all national, regional, and international public health providers will help create a One Health–based governance base for pandemic preparedness and response.
In conclusion, a combination of good scientific detective work and rational use of public health principles provided good guidelines even in the evolution of the origin of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Fig. 1 Cover page of Science, Vol 378, Issue 6616 (October 14, 2022) where the paper of Cohen J. was published: “New evidence suggests pandemic came from nature, not a lab, panel says.”
Fig. 2 Timeline of RNA viruses and Monkeypox virus distribution among humans from 1997 to present. Repeat spill overs are indicated in red (the countries involved are in parentheses). The large font identifies the three recent emerging epidemic/pandemic CoVs (2).
Fig. 3. Timeline of the emergence of CoVs in people or livestock over the past millennium. Evidence supports the origin and emergence of many of these viruses in wildlife, including bats, other mammals, and avian species, often involving an intermediate animal host. The time of the initial spillover as determined by molecular clock analysis or the discovery of the virus by epidemiologic or virologic methods, presumed reservoir host, and the major intermediate
hosts for human and swine CoVs are depicted. Black animal silhouettes indicate the likely reservoir (above) or intermediate host (below). PDCoV, porcine delta-coronavirus; SADS-CoV, swine acute diarrhea syndrome coronavirus. HCoV, Human coronavirus; PHEV, Porcine Hemagglutinating Encephalomyelitis virus; HKU-1, HKU-1 coronavirus; Hu-PDCoV, Human-Porcine Delta coronavirus; Hu-CCoV, Human-Canine coronavirus (2).
- Cohen Cohen J. New evidence suggests pandemic came from nature, not a lab, panel says. Science, 14 OCTOBER 2022 • VOL 378 ISSUE 6616. doi.org/10.1126/science.adf2884 https://www.science.org/doi/epdf/10.1126/science.adf2884
- Keusch, G. T., Amuasi, J. H., Anderson, D. E., Daszak, P., Eckerle, I., Field, H., … & Saif, L. (2022). Pandemic origins and a One Health approach to preparedness and prevention: Solutions based on SARS-CoV-2 and other RNA viruses. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 119(42), e2202871119. https://www.pnas.org/doi/full/10.1073/pnas.2202871119
- More evidence that covid-19 started in a market, not a laboratory. The Economist, 5 March, 2022. https://www.economist.com/science-and-technology/more-evidence-that-covid-19-started-in-a-market-not-a-laboratory/21807945