Coronavirus origin unclear, most probable indirect source is bats: WHO-China study

NEW DELHI: A report from an international team tasked with finding the origin of SARS-COV2 said that the origin of the novel coronavirus was unclear, but the most probable reservoir source of the virus was bats and that it indirectly spilled over to cause disease in humans somewhere in November 2019.

While the report was inconclusive and that bats were most likely to have been the reservoir host for the virus, it said that since there is usually limited close contact between humans and bats, it is likely that transmission of the virus to humans happened through an intermediate host.

A reservoir is the primary host that harbours the virus but shows no ill effects, while the intermediate host is another animal species more likely to be handled by humans, and in certain cases even amplifies the disease when it spills over into humans.

Finding the origin of the virus is imperative because it provides a direction on how the next pandemic through a disease spillover can be avoided. However, the entire process could stretch for years, if not decades. The reservoir host for the Ebola virus has not yet been found despite the first case being found in in Democratic Republic of Congo in 1976.

The explanation for indirect transmission of the novel coronavirus in 2019 is similar to the one that was seen in the SARS outbreak in 2003, when the SARS-COV virus was jumped from bats to civet cats, a farmed wild animal in China, and then to humans.

“This intermediate animal host could be a domestic animal, a wild animal, or a domesticated wild animal and, as of yet, has not been identified,” the report said, adding that a number of investigations are currently underway or planned.

Based on the report of the expert team, which included 17 experts from China and another 17 international experts, including five from World Health Organization, the WHO came out with recommendations to reduce risk of transmission of emerging pathogens from animals to humans in live animal markets or animal product markets.

The recommendations said that anyone visiting live animal markets or animal product markets should practice general hygiene measures, including regular hand washing with soap and water after touching animals and animal products, avoiding touching eyes, nose, or mouth with hands, and avoiding contact with sick animals or spoiled animal products.

It also advised avoiding contacts with animals that may be living in the market like stray cats and dogs. The WHO also recommended avoiding consumption of raw or undercooked animal products.

WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus called for further studies after publication of the report.

“Finding the origin of a virus takes time and we owe it to the world to find the source so we can collectively take steps to reduce the risk of this happening again. No single research trip can provide all the answers,” Ghebreyesus said.

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