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Episode #21 - COVID-19 - Origins of the SARS-CoV-2 virus

14 January 2021 | Science conversation

Summary

Why is it important for scientists to look for the origins of the virus? How do scientists look at the claim that the virus originated in a laboratory? More about the team which is looking for the origins of the virus that causes COVID-19. Dr Peter Ben Embarek leads this team and explains in Science in 5.

Science in 5 is WHO’s conversations in science. Watch WHO experts explain science related to COVID-19.
 

Podcast

Transcript

Vismita Gupta-Smith

We hear a lot about the origins of the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19 nowadays. Hello and welcome to Science in 5. I’m Vismita Gupta-Smith and this is WHO’s conversations in science. Today, we’re talking to Dr. Peter Ben Embarek about the origins of the virus. Welcome, Peter.

Dr. Peter Ben Embarek

Thank you.

Vismita Gupta-Smith

Peter, why is it important for the public and the scientists to know about the origins of this virus?

Dr. Peter Ben Embarek

It's important to understand the origin of the virus for three key reasons. One is if we find the source and if it's still out there, we can prevent future reintroduction of the same virus into the human population. The second reason is that if we understand how this one jumped from bats origin into humans, we can perhaps prevent similar events in the future. So, to prevent future similar pandemics. And the third reason is that if we can find the virus, what it looked like before it jumped to the human population, we could potentially be in a better position to develop more efficient treatments and vaccines for this disease. 

Vismita Gupta-Smith

Peter, you're leading the mission that will be studying the origins of this virus. Tell us about this mission and the people in it.

Dr. Peter Ben Embarek

We have put together a team of 10 international experts. And, this group will travel to Wuhan in the coming days and spend probably about a month there working in close collaboration with Chinese counterparts. The team includes experts in different fields that are necessary to help us understand the origin of the virus. There will be veterinarians, there will be medical doctors, there will be epidemiologists, there will be virologists, who are experts in these viruses. There'll be experts in these type of diseases that originate in animals and jump to humans. And all together, we will work together with Chinese counterparts on different studies, that hopefully will help us better understand this virus. We will start with two weeks in a hotel in quarantine where we won't be able to leave our rooms. We will all have our own rooms and stay there for two weeks but we will still be able to work from day one remotely. And then after the two weeks of quarantine, we will be able to move around and have face-to-face meetings and visit the different sites and areas that we would like to see as part of our studies.

Vismita Gupta-Smith

Peter, we see on social media, a lot of definitive claims that this virus originated in the laboratories.

Tell us, how do scientists look at this question and how should the public be looking at this question? 

Dr. Peter Ben Embarek

We have now the tools that allow us to look at the genetic makeup of these viruses. And when we look at our virus, the COVID-19 virus, there is nothing in its makeup that would indicate that it has been manufactured. It's clearly a natural virus and there are many of these around, we have seen several of them in the past. So, in itself it's not a surprise. Laboratory accidents happen unfortunately once in a while. It has happened many times in the past. And of course, it's even a remote possibility. We have to look at this as a possibility. So, we will of course also look at that hypothesis among many others, even if it's an unlikely one. There is no evidence so far indicating that anybody was working with this virus in the past. There is no evidence to indicate that it would have escaped a laboratory in any way, but of course we will have that in mind when we look at the origin of this virus.

Vismita Gupta-Smith

That was Dr. Peter Ben Embarek explaining how science will be looking for the origins of this virus.

For more on this, tune into our social media channels and be the source of trusted, science-based information. Until next time then. Stay safe, stay healthy and stick with science.

Speaker key

Vismita   Vismita Gupta-Smith

Peter Dr. Peter Ben Embarek

  
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