Coronavirus origins will be investigated by WHO team arriving in China this week

Scientists are investigating how and where the novel coronavirus first originated.
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A little over a year after the World Health Organization (WHO) was first alerted to a string of mysterious respiratory illnesses, experts from the agency are set to arrive in China on Thursday (Jan. 11) to investigate the origins of the novel coronavirus.

The origins of the virus, which has now infected more than 90.3 million people worldwide and killed 1.9 million, has sparked much speculation; conspiracy theories even claimed the virus could have originated in a Chinese lab, which scientists say is extremely unlikely, Live Science previously reported

A large body of research and data shows that SARS-CoV-2 evolved from coronaviruses that naturally infect bats and pangolins in Asia and Southeast Asia, according to a study published in September 2020 in The American Journal of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene. The general consensus is that the novel coronavirus was first circulating in bats and hopped to humans, likely through a still-unknown intermediate species that may have been sold in Chinese markets, according to The Associated Press

Related: 20 of the worst epidemics and pandemics in history 

But while scientists have developed vaccines in record time, no one has been able to pinpoint how the pandemic started in the first place. That could be in part because research on the topic is being strictly controlled by the Chinese government. While China's government is giving grants to scientists in southern China to research the origins of the virus, they are also monitoring the findings and requiring approvals before any publications, according to the AP.

Two WHO members who had already started traveling to China were denied permission last week, according to The BBC. WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said last week during a press conference that he was "disappointed" that China hadn't finalized their permissions for WHO members to enter the country. "We are eager to get the mission underway as soon as possible," he said. 

China has now approved the visit from WHO experts, who will arrive this week to meet with experts from China's National Health Commission. It will be an opportunity to "exchange views with Chinese scientists and medical experts on scientific cooperation on the tracing of the origin of the new coronavirus," Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said, according to the AP.

Understanding the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic is "of great importance," researchers wrote in the American Journal of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene study. That's because if we don't understand how this happened, it could easily happen again. There are many other viruses that have the ability to infect humans and are already circulating in animals, so finding and monitoring those reservoirs is key to preventing future pandemics.

"As we face the mounting deaths and societal upheavals of the COVID-19 pandemic, we must not lose sight of how this pandemic began, how and why we missed the warning signs, and what we can do to prevent it from happening again — and again."

Originally published on Live Science.

Yasemin Saplakoglu
Staff Writer

Yasemin is a staff writer at Live Science, covering health, neuroscience and biology. Her work has appeared in Scientific American, Science and the San Jose Mercury News. She has a bachelor's degree in biomedical engineering from the University of Connecticut and a graduate certificate in science communication from the University of California, Santa Cruz.