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The World Health Organization Representative to Russia has said she cannot exclude the possibility that the new coronavirus had been in a dormant state before the pandemic began.
In an interview with state-run news agency RIA Novosti, Melita Vujnovic was asked to comment on reports from Barcelona, Spain, that SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, had been found in wastewater samples from March 2019.
This finding led to Tom Jefferson, from Oxford University’s Centre for Evidence-Based Medicine, U.K., to claim the virus may have been lying dormant around the world until environmental conditions were right for it to emerge.
“I think the virus was already here—here meaning everywhere,” he told the U.K.’s Daily Telegraph. “We may be seeing a dormant virus that has been activated by environmental conditions. There was a case in the Falkland Islands in early February. Now where did that come from? There was a cruise ship that went from South Georgia to Buenos Aires, and the passengers were screened and then on day eight, when they started sailing towards the Weddell Sea, they got the first case. Was it in prepared food that was defrosted and activated?
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“The explanation for this could only be that these agents don’t come or go anywhere. They are always here and something ignites them, maybe human density or environmental conditions, and this is what we should be looking for.”
Responding to the suggestion of dormancy, Vujnovic said WHO has brought together a large team to work with Chinese scientists to understand the origin of the virus. “This virus lived in animals and at some point passed on to humans,” she is quoted as saying.
“It is hard to say exactly when, what, and where it happened, it is now being investigated. Viruses can be found in wastewater. But nothing can be said specifically. Old samples are being investigated. This is a very complex study. If there is any revolutionary result, it will be immediately announced by WHO. I do not exclude this version, but it is impossible to say for sure.”
Evidence currently suggests SARS-CoV-2 is a zoonotic disease that, at some point, passed from an animal host into humans. One line of investigation is that a pangolin was an intermediary host between bats and humans. It has also been suggested SARS-CoV-2 is the result of two coronaviruses combining in an animal host and then being passed on from there. Initially it was thought the virus may have been passed to humans at a seafood market in Wuhan, China, where the first cases of the disease were identified. However, evidence is emerging that challenges this narrative, including several of the first people to be diagnosed with COVID-19 having no contact with the market.
In a statement emailed to Newsweek, James Wood, Head of Department of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Cambridge, U.K., said the idea of dormancy was “weak.”
“Most new infections that spread into humans come from animals, often from wildlife and frequently but not always through domestic animals,” he said. “This virus will have been present in animal populations, probably bats, for some time before it spread to humans. It has not so much been dormant as restricted in its animal distribution. The suggestion that the virus was circulating in humans prior to its emergence in Wuhan is weak and has not been validated.”
Jonathan Stoye, Group Leader of the Retrovirus-Host Interactions Laboratory at The Francis Crick Institute, also raised doubts about Jefferson’s idea. “There are two issues about the suggestions made,” he said in a statement sent to Newsweek.
“First what precisely is meant by ‘dormancy?’ Could this simply mean growth in bats or some intermediate host or does it imply true dormancy which seems strange for a coronavirus. Second is the mention of traces of virus in March 2019 samples. These data cannot be considered robust.”
Michael Novakhov – SharedNewsLinks℠