The origin of the new coronavirus remains at this stage uncertain, but it is nevertheless essential to understand how the virus has “invaded the human race” in a few months, explains a senior official of the WHO in an interview with AFP.
In late March, President Donald Trump and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping concluded an informal truce in the war of words between the two great powers on the origin of the disease.
But the truce quickly shattered.
The Trump administration, which accuses the Chinese authorities of having delayed alerting the world to the epidemic, now openly suspects China of having hidden a laboratory accident which would have been at the origin of the pandemic. What Beijing denies.
Without saying a word, Sylvie Briand, head of infectious risk management at the World Health Organization, nevertheless considers “interesting to know the origin of the virus to understand how it evolved”.
“It is a virus of animal origin transmitted to humans. And so we must try to understand what made that the adaptation of this virus allowed it to invade the human species ”, she analyzes in front of the WHO headquarters in Geneva.
The first cases of SARS-CoV-2, the virus causing Covid-19 disease, were reported in late December in the Wuhan region of China. Since then, the pandemic has killed nearly 300,000 people.
Many researchers believe that the new coronavirus was born in bats, but scientists believe that it passed through another species before being transmitted to humans.
“The virus has multiplied in these animals, has changed a little bit as these passages and finally led to a form of virus” transmissible to humans, said Sylvie Briand, who directed the program WHO influenza during the H1N1 pandemic in 2009.
– ‘Thousands of direct debits’ –
Tracing the origin of the virus, by finding its intermediate hosts, would allow, according to this French scientist, “to prevent the phenomenon from happening again and to avoid ping-pong phenomena” of transmission between humans and animals.
Because “each time there are these passages from one species to another, the virus can change a little bit and that can have an impact for example on treatments (…) or vaccines that can no longer be effective enough, ”she explains.
For the moment, many unknowns persist. And this, although there have been “thousands and thousands of samples” made, in particular on “many animals in the Wuhan market” but also on dogs in Hong Kong, she noted, stressing that these analyzes take time.
These samples are taken by the countries, underlines Ms. Briand, but the WHO “encourages them to share information between them” to speed up research.
The United States and Australia have called for an international investigation into the origin of the virus. More diplomatic, the WHO called on Beijing to “invite” to investigate the matter.
Shortly after, China proposed in early May the creation of a commission under the aegis of the world health authorities to assess the “global response” to Covid-19, and only after the epidemic had ended.
The Chinese authorities have stressed that the approach should be validated beforehand by the World Health Assembly of WHO or its executive board – the two main organs of the international organization based in Geneva and which meet next week at their annual meeting.
These debates should also focus, according to Ms. Briand, on the need to “refine” the WHO health alert system, which only allows to declare whether there is an international health emergency or not while the previous process was in six phases, the last of which was the pandemic.
“We have to come up with a system that can launch alerts so that people prepare, but at the same time tell them if it is imminent or if it will happen in a few weeks or in a few months and tell them better what they should prepare for, ”she says.