8 Questions From a Disease Detective on the Pandemic’s
OriginsDr. Daniel R. Lucey wants answers to pointed questions
that bear on how the coronavirus leapt from bats to humans.
In a recent blog post, Dr. Daniel R. Lucey, an infectious disease
specialist at Georgetown University, offered guidance to World Health
Organization investigators who are headed to China to explore the origins
of the coronavirus pandemic.Credit...O’Neill Institute for National and
Global Health Law at Georgetown University
By William J.
For decades, Dr. Daniel R. Lucey, an infectious disease specialist
at Georgetown University, has crisscrossed the globe to study epidemics
and their origins. His attention now is on the Covid-19 pandemic, which
first came to public notice late last year in Wuhan, China. Its exact
beginnings are sufficiently clouded that the World Health Organization
has begun a wide inquiry into its roots. The advance team is to leave for
China this weekend, and Dr. Lucey has publicly encouraged the health
agency to address what he considers eight top questions.
“It’s not a legitimate investigation if the team doesn’t ask them,” Dr.
Lucey said in a recent interview. He cited public reports and scientific
articles as starting points for his queries, adding that Beijing “has
never come out and answered these questions.”
Clear answers, Dr. Lucey said, would cast light on how the deadly
pathogen spread so rapidly and, perhaps, how exactly the outbreak began.
China has not been forthcoming with information, and the Trump
has inflamed the situation with threats and bullying.
It has charged, without presenting evidence, that the microbe jumped
to humans from a Wuhan lab. On Tuesday, after long
threatening to do so, the administration began formal steps to end
its W.H.O. membership.
A student of epidemics, Dr. Lucey has traveled to Asia, Africa, the
Americas, Europe and the Middle East, at times as a caregiver. In 2014,
working for Doctors Without Borders, he treated Ebola patients in
Liberia. He posed his eight questions last month in a post for his
blog, which he writes for the
Infectious Diseases Society of
America. The post came in response to an announcement by Tedros
Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director general of the W.H.O., that the agency
would be sending a team to China to investigate the pathogen’s source a
move long sought by the Trump administration.
“We can fight the virus better when we know everything about the virus,
including how it started,” Mr. Ghebreyesus
said on June 29 at a regular briefing in Geneva. In May, the World
Health Assembly, the W.H.O.’s top decision-making body,
passed a resolution calling on the agency to work with other
international groups to identify the “source of the virus and the route
of introduction to the human population.”
Ever since the outbreak erupted late last year in central China, the
global rumor mill has buzzed with speculation and conspiracy theories.
ruled out the idea that the pathogen was
concocted as a bioweapon. They agree that it began as a bat virus
that probably evolved naturally in another mammal to become adept at
infecting and killing humans. But so far, after months of concentrated
research at sites and laboratories in China and elsewhere around the
globe, no clear intermediary has come to light.
The first three of Dr. Lucey’s eight questions center on the Wuhan wet
market a sprawling marketplace that sold fresh fish and meat before
being shut down. It
was initially viewed as the viral point of origin. That idea was
thrown into doubt when
a study by Chinese scientists reported that roughly a third of the
earliest hospitalized victims including the first had never visited
In a May blog, Dr. Lucey quoted the head of China’s Center for
Disease Control as ruling it out as the pandemic’s place of origin. The
market, the Chinese health official said, “is just another
Hundreds of environmental samples were reportedly collected at the
wet market, producing 33 positive results, but few details have been made
public. Dr. Lucey
asks: Were any of the positive results linked to human infections?
And from what kinds of surfaces doorknobs, cutting boards, sewage,
garbage trucks were the samples collected? So far, none of the reported
positive tests have come from animals.
His fourth question widens the scope of investigation to other markets in
Wuhan and across China. Were any samples collected from animals “now
known to be susceptible to the virus” including cats, tigers, mink and
ferrets? (Ferrets are routinely used to gauge the transmissibility of
human flu viruses.) He also asks about pangolins,
which were initially considered a possible intermediary in the human
Dr. Lucey’s fifth question addresses
a detailed report in The South China Morning Post, published in Hong
Kong, that identified an early human coronavirus case on Nov. 17 in Hubei
province. The province is the size of Washington State, and Wuhan is its
capital. In March, Dr. Lucey
wrote a blog post about the report, which described the virus’s rapid
spread in Hubei, based on information that the report said came from the
government. Now, Dr. Lucey is urging the investigators from the World
Health Organization to determine where each of these early Hubei cases
were reported, if indeed they occurred, and whether any other “documented
or suspected” human infections may have occurred even earlier.
The sixth and seventh questions go to whether the deadly pathogen leapt
to humans from a laboratory. Although some intelligence analysts and
scientists have entertained that scenario, no direct evidence has come to
light suggesting that the coronavirus escaped from one of Wuhan’s
Even so, given the wet market’s downgrading in the investigation, “It is
important to address questions about any potential laboratory source of
the virus, whether in Wuhan or elsewhere,” Dr. Lucey wrote in his blog
To that end, he urges the W.H.O.
investigators to look for any signs of “gain of function” research the
deliberate enhancement of pathogens
to make them more dangerous. The technique is highly contentious.
Critics question its merits and warn that it could lead to catastrophic
lab leaks. Proponents see it as a legitimate way to learn how viruses and
other infectious organisms might evolve to infect and kill people, and
thus help in devising new protections and precautions.
Debate over its wisdom
erupted in 2011 after researchers announced success in making the
highly lethal H5N1 strain of avian flu easily transmissible through the
air between ferrets, at least in the laboratory.
In his blog, Dr. Lucey asks “what, if any,” gain-of-function studies were
done on coronaviruses in Wuhan, elsewhere in China, or in collaboration
with foreign laboratories.
“If done well scientifically, then this investigation should allay
persistent concerns about the origin of this virus,” he wrote. “It could
also help set an improved standard for investigating and stopping the
awful viruses, and other pathogens, in the decades ahead.”
Finally, Dr. Lucey asks the W.H.O. team to learn more about China’s main
influenza research lab, a high-security facility in Harbin, the capital
of China’s northernmost province. In May, he notes,
a Chinese paper in the journal Science reported that two virus
samples from Wuhan were studied there in great detail early this year,
including in a variety of animals. It reported that cats and ferrets were
highly susceptible to the pathogen; dogs were only mildly susceptible;
and pigs, chickens and ducks were not susceptible at all.
In his travels, Dr. Lucey went to Brazil to study the Zika virus; to
Madagascar to study pneumonic plague; to Jordan to study the Middle East
respiratory syndrome, or MERS; and to Guangzhou, China, to study severe
acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS. He said his wide travels over the
decades had informed his current inquiry.
In an email, he added that the World Health Organization was aware of his
eight questions and had given him “good feedback.”
Dr. Lucey likened his queries to the process of unlocking a large
building. “The key thing is to open the door,” he said in the interview.
“Where you go once you get inside, that’s beyond me.”
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