Dr. Peter Hotez: International Team Should Investigate Coronavirus Origins

Dr. Peter Hotez

Title: Professor of pediatrics and molecular virology & microbiology, co-director of the Texas Children’s Hospital Center for Vaccine Development and dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine

Location: Houston

In recent weeks, the idea that the novel coronavirus sprang from a lab leak in China has gained currency in press reports. Here, Dr. Peter Hotez, a prominent public health expert whom U.S. News profiled last year, discusses that theory and the importance of figuring out how the pandemic began. In the years following the 2002 outbreak of SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome), Hotez and his colleagues first started working on coronavirus vaccines, initially for SARS and later MERS (Middle East respiratory syndrome). When they got the new SARS-CoV-2 virus sequence, they were able to pivot quickly and develop vaccines against COVID-19.

As told to Ruben Castaneda, as part of U.S. News & World Report’s “One Pandemic Question” series. Responses have been edited for length and clarity.

Q: Why is it so important to determine the origins of the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19?

We need this information to prevent future coronavirus pandemics. COVID-19 is the third serious coronavirus infection in this new century. There was SARS in 2002, MERS in 2012 and now COVID-19. A bottom line is that Mother Nature is already warning us that a new serious coronavirus epidemic is going to appear every eight to 10 years. And we should be ready.

Could COVID-19 have first originated in the laboratory and been leaked as it was being studied? Yes, but I feel such scenarios are less likely.

[SEE: What to Say to Friends or Family Members Who Hesitate to Wear a Mask.]

We still don’t know why or how this novel coronavirus emerged, or fully understand the interplay of different factors: animal hosts, urbanization, expanding deforestation and perhaps climate change may be driving the increased contact between humans and animals — or the ability of viruses to leap from animals to humans.

The ecosystem of animals, humans and disease is sometimes referred to as ‘one health,’ and designing one-health interventions against future coronavirus pandemics depends on having detailed knowledge of how coronaviruses first arise and jump to people.

The only way to do this is to investigate the true origins of COVID-19. There’s some evidence from John Brownstein’s group at Harvard that COVID-19 might have first appeared in humans as early as late summer 2019. Brownstein is a researcher who uses infomatics tools to predict patterns of virus outbreaks. According to some newspaper reports, the first actual case of COVID-19 might have been diagnosed in November 2019, but Brownstein’s work suggests to me the possibility that the virus may have been circulating months before.

[Read: Unsung Heroes Fight the COVID-19 Pandemic.]

There is a way to resolve this: We need to establish an interdisciplinary team of scientists, both from China and internationally, in order to exhaustively test wild animal species, including bats, and possibly domestic animals, such as livestock, to reveal the potential animal origins of COVID-19. In parallel, such groups should conduct an extensive outbreak investigation to trace the initial human cases of COVID-19 and their early contacts.

For instance, did COVID-19 jump only once from animals to humans or were there multiple events, and over what period of time? Could these processes have been occurring for several months or even longer? And what is it about China — Guangdong province for SARS 2002-03, and Hubei province for SARS-CoV-2 in 2019 — that created the perfect storm of conditions to promote the emergence of these coronaviruses in humans?

In the course of these investigations, it will be critical to interview coronavirus experts in China, and they should be included in the investigative team. If a laboratory leak is revealed, it needs to be addressed in a straightforward and nonjudgmental manner as much as possible.

COVID-19 has caused one of the worst pandemics in modern human history. Uncovering its origins at a granular level is essential if we hope to prevent further catastrophes. I believe that making Chinese scientists a part of the solution to solving this medial mystery, and solving this humanitarian crisis, could be instrumental in persuading the Chinese government to cooperate in these investigations.

[Read: COVID-19: ‘Seared Into My Brain.’]

In parallel, we must also recognize that COVID-19 won’t be our last coronavirus epidemic. Together, the U.S. and China should cooperate on developing new vaccines that might work against a wide range of coronaviruses. Joint U.S.-China “vaccine diplomacy” to develop a mutually beneficial universal coronavirus vaccine might also become an important incentive for China’s cooperation on COVID-19 origins.

I’m optimistic we can determine the origin of the coronavirus, but we need to have the world’s best Chinese and global scientists leading the effort.

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Dr. Peter Hotez: International Team Should Investigate Coronavirus Origins originally appeared on usnews.com

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