11 Oct 2022

Covid-19: International task force finds origins 'most likely zoonotic', warns of a failure to reduce animal-to-human transmission

2:00 pm on 11 October 2022
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Photo: AFP

Almost three years into the Covid-19 pandemic, a team of international experts say the world has still not dealt with what it says is the "most likely" cause of the virus: Animal-to-human transmission.

The taskforce was created last year to assess available evidence on what drove the origins and early spread of Covid-19 and provide "evidence-based recommendations" to reduce the impact and improve responses to such outbreaks.

In the new report released today, it found the world had "largely failed" to meet the challenge to be better prepared to prevent or respond adequately enough to the next pandemic.

The report said the world still didn't have strategies for preventing zoonotic transmission - animal-to-human virus spread - and, according to the experts, this will only get worse with climate change and urban sprawl.

One of the Australian-based members of group, the Doherty Institute's Danielle Anderson said it looked at "all the evidence" and determined that the origins of Covid-19 were "most likely zoonotic".

The group's findings come on the back of two studies released earlier this year that found that the Covid-19 pandemic likely originated in a market where live animals were sold in Wuhan, China.

However in June, the World Health Organization said its latest investigation into the origins of Covid-19 was inconclusive, largely because data from China was missing.

Anderson said any circumstance where there was increased interaction between humans and animals - as a result of climate change and urban development - then there was a chance for a potential spillover of viruses.

"[That is] whether they're known to us, or new, previously unknown viruses," she said.

According to Jane Halton from the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations - who is not part of the taskforce - sharpening the focus on the interaction between animals and humans was a "crucial lesson" from the pandemic.

"What we have been experiencing the last three years [is] a consequence of a virus making the transition from an animal to a human, one that we had no capacity to respond to," she said.

The report which makes five major recommendations, called for a "One Health" strategy to prevent future pandemics, involving more collaboration across jurisdictions and different areas of health.

"This means looking at places where viruses could possibly emerge," Anderson said.

"Working with people in those different countries and looking at, if there's cases of illness in either humans or in animals, and being prepared to catch things very early on, essentially as soon as they happen."

People wearing masks are seen near the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market where Coronavirus COVID-19 clusters occurred in Wuhan, Hubei province on Jan. 15, 2021. ( The Yomiuri Shimbun ) (Photo by YOMIURI SHIMBUN / Yomiuri / The Yomiuri Shimbun via AFP)

The Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market where Covid-19 clusters occurred in Wuhan, Hubei province on Jan. 15, 2021. Photo: AFP

Targeting disease 'hot spots'

The taskforce's main recommendation was to identify high-threat potential pathogens among people, wildlife and domestic animals and target those disease "hot spots".

This is known as "smart surveillance" and could involve monitoring and sampling places such as wet animal markets, similar to the one in Wuhan.

Anderson said it also involved deeper surveillance, such as examining people who worked closely with animals, such as animal traders, carers or those who work in abattoirs.

"Perhaps their blood could be taken periodically and look at what antibodies they have in their body to know what they've been exposed to," she said.

"If people are sick, then [we'd] ask the questions of: 'Do you work with animals?' or 'Have you had contact with animals?'"

Anderson said this involved more people actively doing groundwork and "paying closer attention to little things to try to pick up clusters early".

The report said scientists could develop risk assessments and early warning systems, as well as building critical data to help develop vaccines, or ways to diagnose new viruses.

But according to Professor Edward Holmes from the University of Sydney, there's one catch: politics.

"You can do all the surveillance you want [but] it gets you nowhere unless you're prepared to share that data," said the virologist, who was also involved in cracking the genome sequence of Covid-19.

"And you'd hope that Covid would be the wakeup call to the world to say: 'Hey, we've got to do something about this'. But, I'm not convinced, sadly, that that's going to happen," Holmes said.

'Fake news' sign is seen displayed on a laptop screen in this long exposure illustration photo taken on June 13, 2020. (Photo by Jakub Porzycki/NurPhoto) (Photo by Jakub Porzycki / NurPhoto / NurPhoto via AFP)

Social media companies needed to be responsible and not allow misinformation to be perpetuated, said taskforce members. Photo: Jakub Porzycki/NurPhoto

Tackling misinformation

The report also called for measures to counter misinformation and disinformation about the prevention and control of emerging diseases.

Halton said social media companies needed to be responsible and not allow misinformation to be perpetuated.

'My hope is that all [these] companies will be responsible and not allow misinformation to be perpetuated or will provide the kind of information people need, so they can form a judgement based on the facts," she said.

"No one is looking to stifle debate but we need all the parties to be responsible. We have seen some really pernicious purveyors of misinformation over the last few years, so social media needs to be part of the plan."

The report called for organisations to support scientists under threat arising from disinformation and politically motivated attacks as well as designing and promoting programs to improve public understanding of science.