KUALA LUMPUR, Nov 24 — It has been slightly over a year after the first case of COVID-19 was reported in China, yet the world is still puzzled over the true origin of the virus.
Even after 56 million cases and 1.3 million deaths, scientists have yet to zero in on how the virus got so out of control.
These questions and many more pressing ones – will be the focus of an international taskforce led by Dr. Peter Daszak, a disease ecologist who has spent years studying coronavirus transmission in China and Southeast Asia.
“We intend to conduct a thorough and rigorous investigation into the origins and early spread of SARS-CoV-2 (COVID-19),” said Dr Daszak, who is the president of EcoHealth Alliance, a non-governmental organisation working on critical connections between human, animal, environment health on a global scale.
The 12-member taskforce is also part of The Lancet COVID-19 Commission. The Lancet is one of the world’s oldest and most renowned weekly peer-reviewed general medical journal.
In a press release today, the taskforce said its members come from a diverse set of scientific disciplines and backgrounds, with expertise in outbreak investigation, virology, lab biosecurity and disease ecology.
One of them is prominent Malaysian virologist Emeritus Prof Datuk Dr Lam Sai Kit – a leader in emerging viral infections who was also central to the discovery of the Nipah virus.
“It is timely to form the commission as we now have more comprehensive data and materials to work with. This allows the commission to provide a “state-of-the art” assessment and offer governments, civil society, and U.N. institutions practical solutions and recommendations in response to the COVID-19 pandemic,” he told Bernama in an interview.
But how long would it take for the taskforce to come up with the answers the world has been waiting?
“This taskforce has been given 12 months to conduct an objective and rigorous scientific review of all available information on the origin, early control of the pandemic, and One Health solutions to future pandemic threats,” said Lam, who is also a research consultant in Universiti Malaya and a Senior Fellow at the Academy of Sciences Malaysia.
One Health is an approach to design and implement programmes, policies, legislation and research in which multiple sectors communicate and work together to achieve better public health outcomes.
In its investigation, the taskforce will recreate COVID-19 outbreak timeline from the end of the SARS outbreak in 2003 up to WHO’s declaration of COVID-19 as a Public Health Emergency of International Concern on January 30, 2020.
They will also analyze the available evidence for each of the hypotheses put forward on the origin of COVID-19 and compare the early spread and control to previous outbreaks.
This is so that they can identify strategies that might assist future pandemic prevention, the taskforce said.
In the release, Dr Jeffrey D. Sachs of Columbia University, who is chair of The Lancet COVID-19 Commission, said that there was a great deal of interest in understanding how COVID-19 emerged and spread, but also a deeper reason for the taskforce’s work.
“If we can understand why this pandemic began, we can help prevent the next one,” he said.