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February 9, 2021

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Completing ‘jigsaw puzzle’ of COVID-19 origin-tracing requires global cooperation

The ongoing COVID-19 origin-tracing joint investigation between a World Health Organization (WHO) expert team and Chinese scientists is a good start to the mapping of the virus’ transmission route across the globe, but more global cooperation is needed.

The organization has been following researches that have claimed to spot the coronavirus dating back to 2019 to find out if there is any possibility for collaboration on tracing the origin of COVID-19, Maria van Kerkhove, technical lead on COVID-19 response at the WHO Health Emergencies Program, told media last Friday.

There are a number of collaborations that are underway, she added.

The ongoing field study in the Chinese city of Wuhan is, indeed, a pioneering search for part of the route map, which is described by a WHO official as a “big jigsaw puzzle.”

The completion of the puzzle requires similar scientific investigations beyond China as reports have confirmed that the virus had appeared in other parts of the world before China first reported it to the WHO.

“There are different ... scientific observations in different parts of the world ... all of that is very important, because it builds up a picture,” said Michael Ryan, executive director of the WHO’s Health Emergencies Program. “You cannot tell what the image says by looking at one piece in a 10,000-piece jigsaw puzzle.”

Multiple localities

According to historical records, the place an epidemic was first reported often turned out not to be the birthplace of the virus. The origin-tracing of a contagious pathogen needs to unfold in multiple localities simply because epidemics can travel beyond borders, making it fairly complicated to pin down their origin.

For instance, more and more evidence has proved that the 1918 Spanish Flu did not originate in Spain. Instead, the first infection case is likely to be a US soldier.

In terms of COVID-19, an increasing amount of evidence has pointed to the existence of the virus in other countries, for example the United States, Italy and Spain, long before the Wuhan outbreak, suggesting that the deadly pathogen was spreading around the world earlier than previously known.

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has found that COVID-19 was likely in the United States as early as mid-December 2019, weeks before the virus was first identified in China. Spanish virologists also found traces of the novel coronavirus in a sample of Barcelona waste water collected in March 2019.

Therefore, the most scientific attitude towards the virus-tracing investigation is first to soberly recognize the high complexity of the trace-hunting work, rationally acknowledge relevant clues and evidence, no matter when and where they emerge, and also continue carrying out field studies in other countries involved.

COVID-19 is a global pandemic and it is not surprising to find its possible origin in more than one place. Wuhan should be considered as the first stop of the origin-tracing study on a global scale and more countries can work with the WHO as China is doing now.

As Ryan once put it, understanding the origin of the disease is “not about finding somebody to blame” but about “scientific answers.”

It is the shared responsibility of all countries concerned to act in a positive, science-based, and cooperative manner in completing the “jigsaw puzzle” of the virus’ origin. Only with cooperation and solidarity can the international community join forces to defeat the pandemic, a common enemy of mankind, as early as possible.


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