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Finding the Origins of COVID-19 and Preventing Future Pandemics

An international and independent investigation to examine the alternative hypotheses is urgently needed, and the US and Chinese governments should cooperate fully and transparently with such an inquiry. In the meantime, scientists, politicians, and pundits should acknowledge the uncertainties that currently prevail.

NEW YORK – Where did COVID-19 come from? The source of the pandemic is a subject of immense importance. But more than 18 months after the emergence of SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes COVID-19), the question of the pathogen’s origin remains unsettled. More transparency and clarity on the debate could help to resolve the source of the virus and also head off future pandemics.

There are two main hypotheses. The first is a natural occurrence in which SARS-CoV-2 passed from an animal to a human in a natural setting, a farm, or a food market. The second is an infection related to research work that was underway on SARS-like viruses (that is, viruses related to the virus that caused the SARS epidemic in 2002-04). If we are to prevent future outbreaks, determining the source of the current one must be a high priority.

The two hypotheses direct our attention to two different sets of concerns and policy measures, both of which require our attention. Diseases that emerge from the transmission of viruses from wildlife to humans (so-called natural zoonoses) call for precautionary measures in human interactions with animal reservoirs of potentially deadly pathogens, for example in land-clearing, farming, consumption of bushmeat, and rearing and trade of livestock. Natural zoonotic events have caused many deadly epidemic diseases in recent decades, including HIV/AIDS, Ebola, SARS, and MERS.