Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

WHO Team Reconstructs Origins Of Coronavirus Outbreak In Wuhan


A team of World Health Organization researchers is back from Wuhan. After some delay, they gained access to the Chinese city where the coronavirus was first identified. Marion Koopmans, a member of that team, wanted to learn more about the origins of the virus.

MARION KOOPMANS: We have a much better understanding of what the situation was in December in Wuhan, and we have some next-step questions that can be addressed.

INSKEEP: The team found out that the virus was not widespread until late December of 2019. That timeline means a lot because Chinese authorities alerted the world soon after. Koopmans is a Dutch virologist and says diseases similar to this kind of coronavirus are usually introduced by animals, in this case, likely a bat. But how did it reach humans? That was a question they asked in Wuhan. Let's listen.

KOOPMANS: We really reconstructed every step in that initial outbreak to understand what the people that had done that had learned, had seen, had done and then had additional studies. So that's the process that we did.

INSKEEP: Was this, in a way, the world's most important case of contact tracing, trying to get back to something like a patient zero?

KOOPMANS: In my view, it is. And trying to understand really the basis of it, it sounds academic, but I do think we have to learn from these events.

INSKEEP: Are you pretty sure that the market was the place where the virus made the leap from animals to people?

KOOPMANS: So the first cases that were detected were linked to the market, but it's clear that - so now there's a bigger list of cases that are confirmed. And it's clear that not everyone is linked to the market. So what was also done on this trip is to try and get genetic sequences from patients on the market and elsewhere. And you there also see, it's - the market is not the whole story. The market has been one of those spreading events, but there also was circulation outside of - or aside from the market.

And this is a long way of saying we really don't know. So the market has amplified. But even if you then have a case that has not linked to the market, because of this stealth mechanism of spread, it can still be linked somehow - but because someone picked up an infection from another person that was at the market.

INSKEEP: So if there's a lot of evidence pointing to the market, but maybe not all the evidence necessarily pointing to the market, is there any other location that's a suspect in your mind?

KOOPMANS: So all the markets, that's clearly there. And the - what we have recommended is really to walk back from those markets, follow the supply chains, go to the farms, see where they are. And it's - that's already done. That will be in the report that there is - those supply chains do lead to regions where there's also the hotspot for the bat coronavirus. So that's a line to follow. You probably also are hinting at the laboratory hypothesis.

INSKEEP: I'll just raise it because people raised it. Is there any evidence, or can you rule it out?

KOOPMANS: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Sure. So from everything that we've looked at and we've also visited three labs in (unintelligible) and also three labs that work on these viruses. From that, we have not been able to find any credible link there.

INSKEEP: How open and transparent were the Chinese once they let you in?

KOOPMANS: Of course, this is a topic and a mission that is - there are sensitivities around it, if only for the - there's, of course, big political tensions that are around it. And that's something you cannot completely avoid in a situation like this. But once we got out of our quarantine, got into the face-to-face meetings, I think we've managed to get into real good scientific exchange with stiff discussions here and there because to start from different backgrounds and different views. But I tell everyone, wait and - read the report, and let's discuss then. But I think we managed to get a good outcome of this meeting. I think it was, in that sense, quite successful.

INSKEEP: Is there anything that you think is necessary to know that you don't have access to?

KOOPMANS: Not really. So if you say, did the Chinese colleagues hand over the complete raw data files? No, they did not. But then again, I did not expect that in a mission like this. So we've seen a lot of information. We've been given a lot of information. We've had access to the people working on the data, aggregating the data, looking at what exact questionnaires they can use. What does the data file look like? To me, that is quite extensive data access.

INSKEEP: Marion Koopmans, a Dutch virologist just back from China.

Thanks so much.

KOOPMANS: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.