Dominic Dwyer, University of SydneySARS-CoV-2 has caused the greatest pandemic of the past 100 years. Understanding its origins is crucial for knowing what happened in late 2019 and for preparing for the next pandemic virus.
These studies take time, planning and cooperation. They must be driven by science — not politics or posturing. The investigation into the origins of SARS-CoV-2 has already taken too long. It has been more than 20 months since the first cases were recognised in Wuhan, China, in December 2019.
This week US President Joe Biden was briefed by United States intelligence agencies on their investigation into the origins of the virus responsible for COVID-19, according to media. Parts of the investigation’s report are expected to be publicly released within the next few days.
An early report from the New York Times suggests the investigation does not conclude whether the spread of the virus resulted from a lab leak, or if it emerged naturally in a spillover from animals to humans.
While a possible lab leak is a line of inquiry (should scientific evidence emerge), it musn’t distract from where the current evidence tells us we should be directing most of our energy. The more time that passes, the less feasible it will become for experts to determine the biological origins of the virus.
I was one of the experts who visited Wuhan earlier this year as part of the World Health Organisation’s investigation into SARS-CoV-2 origins. We found the evidence pointed to the pandemic starting as a result of zoonotic transmission of the virus, meaning a spillover from an animal to humans.
Our inquiry culminated in a report published in March which made a series of recommendations for further work. There is an urgent need to get on with designing studies to support these recommendations.
Today, myself and other independent authors of the WHO report have written to plead for this work to be accelerated. Crucial time is disappearing to work through the six priority areas, which include:
- further trace-back studies based on early disease reports
- SARS-CoV-2-specific antibody surveys in regions with early COVID-19 cases. This is important given a number of countries including Italy, France, Spain and the United Kingdom have often reported inconclusive evidence of early COVID-19 detection
- trace-back and community surveys of the people involved with the wildlife farms that supplied animals to Wuhan markets
- risk-targeted surveys of possible animal hosts. This could be either the primary host (such as bats), or secondary hosts or amplifiers
- detailed risk-factor analyses of pockets of early cases, wherever these have occurred
- and follow up of any credible new leads.
Race against the clock
The biological feasibility of some of these studies is time dependent. SARS-CoV-2 antibodies emerge a week or so after someone has become infected and recovered from the virus, or after being vaccinated.
But we know antibodies decrease over time — so samples collected now from people infected before or around December 2019 may be harder to examine accurately.
Using antibody studies to differentiate between vaccination, natural infection, or even second infection (especially if the initial infection occurred in 2019) in the general population is also problematic.
For example, after natural infection a range of SARS-CoV-2-specific antibodies, such as to the spike protein or nucleoprotein, can be detected for varying lengths of time and in varying concentrations and ability to neutralise the virus.
But depending on the vaccine used, antibodies to the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein may be all that is detected. These, too, drop with time.
There is also a need to have international consensus in the laboratory methods used to detect SARS-CoV-2-specific antibodies. Inconsistency in testing methods has led to arguments about data quality from many locations.
It takes time to come to agreement on laboratory techniques for serological and viral genomic studies, sample access and sharing (including addressing consent and privacy concerns). Securing funding also takes time — so time is not a resource we can waste.
Distance from potential sources
Moreover, many wildlife farms in Wuhan have closed down following the initial outbreak, generally in an unverified manner. And finding human or animal evidence of early coronavirus spillover is increasingly difficult as animals and humans disperse.
Fortunately, some studies can be done now. This includes reviews of early case studies, and blood donor studies in Wuhan and other cities in China (and anywhere else where there was early detection of viral genomes).
It is important to examine the progress or results of such studies by local and international experts, yet the mechanisms for such scientific cross-examination have not yet been put in place.
New evidence has come forward since our March report. These papers and the WHO report data have been reviewed by scientists independent of the WHO group. They have came to similar conclusions to the WHO report, identifying:
- the host reservoir for SARS-CoV-2 has not been found
- the key species in China (or elsewhere) may not have been tested
- and there is substantial scientific evidence supporting a zoonotic origin.
Teetering back and forth
While the possibility of a laboratory accident can’t be entirely dismissed, it is highly unlikely, given the repeated human-animal contact that occurs routinely in the wildlife trade.
Still, the “lab-leak” hypotheses continue to generate media interest over and above the available evidence. These more political discussions further slow the cooperation and agreement needed to progress with the WHO report’s phase two studies.
The World Health Organisation has called for a new committee to oversee future origins studies. This is laudable, but there is the risk of further delaying the necessary planning for the already outlined SARS-CoV-2 origins studies.
The UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons will finally come into force after the 50th country (Honduras) ratified it over the weekend. The treaty will make the development, testing, stockpiling and use of nuclear weapons illegal for those countries that have signed it.
This is an extraordinary achievement for those who have suffered the most from these weapons — including the hibakusha (survivors) of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the islanders who lived through nuclear weapons testing in the Pacific.
Since 1956, the hibakusha in Japan, South Korea, Brazil and elsewhere have been some of the most strident campaigners against the use of these weapons. Among them is a group of Japanese Catholics from Nagasaki whom I interviewed as part of my research collecting the oral histories of atomic bomb survivors.
A 92-year-old hibakusha of the atomic bombing of Nagasaki in 1945 and a brother in a Catholic order, Ozaki Tōmei, explained the significance of the treaty to survivors like him. He was orphaned from the bombing at 17 and never found his mother’s body.
The Germans made tools for war including poisonous gas, which was [eventually] banned […] However, when the USA made an atomic weapon, then they … wanted to try it out. It was a war […] they were human.
And so this is why we say we have to eliminate nuclear weapons […] They said they did it to end the war, but for the people who were struck, it was horrific […] there was no need to use it.
Treaty does not have support of nuclear powers
The treaty was adopted at the United Nations in 2017 by a vote of 122 nations in favour, one against and one abstention.
Sixty-nine nations, however, have not signed it, including all of the nuclear powers such as the US, UK, Russia, China, France, India, Pakistan and North Korea, as well as NATO member states (apart from the Netherlands who voted against), Japan and Australia.
Since the treaty was adopted, it needed ratification by 50 countries to come into force. This will now happen in 90 days.
The campaign for the treaty has relied heavily on civil society and organisations such as the Nobel Peace Prize-winning International Campaign Against Nuclear Weapons (ICAN).
And from the beginning, it has exposed political fault lines. The United States has been particularly outspoken in its opposition to the treaty, warning last week the treaty “turns back the clock on verification and disarmament and is dangerous” to the 50-year-old Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT).
The NPT sought to prevent the spread of nuclear arms beyond the five original weapons powers (the US, Russia, China, UK and France). It has been signed by 190 countries, including those five nations.
The head of ICAN, Beatrice Fihn, says the new treaty banning nuclear weapons merely builds on the nonproliferation treaty.
There’s no way you can undermine the nonproliferation treaty by banning nuclear weapons. It’s the end goal of the nonproliferation treaty.
States like Japan and Australia have opposed the treaty on the grounds their security is boosted by the US stockpile of nuclear weapons. Japan’s former prime minister, Shinzo Abe, has said the treaty
was created without taking into account the realities of security.
The efforts of hibakusha in advocating for a treaty
Making the bomb illegal turns an old US justification for the weapon on its head. Harry Stimson, the former US war secretary, argued in 1947 the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were necessary to compel the Japanese to surrender at the end of the second world war.
The atomic bomb was more than a weapon of terrible destruction; it was a psychological weapon.
At the forefront of the campaign to support the nuclear weapons ban treaty have been the voices of hibakusha who experienced the carnage firsthand.
Another Catholic hibakusha, Nakamura Kazutoshi, told me the stockpiling of nuclear weapons enables states to carry out genocide.
In war, we are at a level below animals. Among monkeys, or chimpanzees, there are no animals who would carry out a genocide.
A third hibakusha, 90-year-old Jōji Fukahori, told me about how he lost his mother and three younger siblings in the Nagasaki bombing.
His younger brother, Kōji, died an excruciating death around a week after the bombing, walking in the hot ash with no shoes and complaining to his brother, “I’m so hot!”
At the site where Fukahori’s brother was exposed, the temperature was about 1,000 degrees Celsius. Fukahori said,
You would have thought everyone would have turned into charcoal.
For Fukahori, the lasting effects of radiation exposure is a major reason why nuclear weapons must be banned. He continued:
the terror of radiation has to be fully communicated … The atomic bomb is unacceptable. I still cannot get over it.
Since 2009, Fukahori has been speaking out at the Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum and on the Peace Boat, a non-governmental organisation that organises cruises where passengers learn about the consequences of using nuclear weapons from hibakusha.
Pressure building on Japan
The Japanese government is now under mounting pressure to ratify the treaty. Major Japanese financial institutions and companies have said they will no longer fund the production of nuclear weapons and nearly a third of all local assemblies have adopted proposals calling on the government to act.
The government, however, has been unmoved. In August, Abe gave a speech at a memorial service in Nagasaki, in which he suggested the effects of the bombings had been overcome.
Seventy-five years ago today, Nagasaki was reduced to ashes, with not a single tree or blade of grass remaining. Yet through the efforts of its citizens, it achieved reconstruction beautifully as we see today. Mindful of this, we again feel strongly that there is no trial that cannot be overcome and feel acutely how precious peace is.
A Japanese atomic researcher, who knows how Fukahori and other hibakusha have not been able to move on, told me Abe’s words don’t go far enough:
Rather than placing a ‘full-stop’ at the end of damages such as this, we have a necessity to make our claim that the damages are not finished.
The nuclear weapons ban treaty offers a moment of hope for all the hibakusha of Hiroshima and Nagasaki still with us after 75 years. It is certainly their hope the ratification of the treaty now moves us one step closer to a world free of nuclear war.