The search will start in Wuhan — the Chinese city where the new coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 was first identified — and expand across China and beyond. Tracing the virus’s path is important for preventing future viral spillovers, but scientists say the WHO team faces a daunting task.
Most researchers think the virus originated in bats, but how it jumped to people is unknown. Other coronaviruses have passed from an intermediate animal host; for example, the virus that caused an outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) in 2002–04 probably came to people from raccoon dogs (Nyctereutes procyonoides) or civets.
“Finding an animal with a SARS-CoV-2 infection is like looking for a needle in the world’s largest haystack. They may never find a ‘smoking bat’” or other animal, says Angela Rasmussen, a virologist at Columbia University in New York City. “It will be key for the investigators to establish a collaborative relationship with scientists and government officials in China.”
Nailing down the origins of a virus can take years, if it can be done at all, and the investigation will also have to navigate the highly sensitive political situation between China and the United States.
The team held its first virtual meeting, including researchers in China, on 30 October, and is reviewing the preliminary evidence and developing study protocols, says the WHO.