World Health Organization Says It Will Investigate Animal Source Of SARS-CoV-2, The Virus Behind COVID-19
China’s “wet markets” sell fresh meat, fish and vegetables; but the sale of exotic animals at some of them is believed to have faciliated the spread of COVID-19 from animals to humans

In a mild statement touching on a politically wired issue, World Health Organization Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said that the agency would step up its investigations of the original animal source of the SARS CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19. 

His comment came in response to a recommendation of the WHO Emergency Committee that met Thursday 30 April to review the status of the COVID-19 pandemic as a ‘public health emergency of international concern.’

“We accept the committee’s advice that WHO works to identify the animal source of the virus through international scientific and collaborative missions, in collaboration with the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) and the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations,” said Dr Tedros, speaking at Friday’s WHO press briefing. 

The Emergency Committee had recommended that WHO “work with the OIE, FAO, and countries to identify the zoonotic source of the virus and the route of introduction to the human population, including the possible role of intermediate hosts,” and “provide guidance on how to prevent SARS-CoV-2 infections in animals and humans and prevent the establishment of new zoonotic reservoirs.”

The issue of the virus’ origins became highly politicized after US President Donald Trump claimed to have evidence that the virus had escaped from a laboratory, although he never provided any support. Trump referred again to this claim at a press briefing Friday.

Scientific assessments have generally concluded that the virus came from a natural source, most likely a bat that possibly transmitted it to a pangolin or a reptile, which are widely used in traditional medicine as well as food sources in China. 

Even so, Chinese claims that the virus first was transmitted to humans at the Wuhan, China wild animal market, seem less well-founded, insofar as some early cases had no connection to the market. 

That has led some observers to suggest that the virus, while natural in origin could have also escaped from the Wuhan Virology Institute or the Wuhan Centre for Disease Control, near the wild animal market – which had also collected bat coronavirus specimens. 

When asked about the origin of the virus, WHO’s Executive Director of Health Emergencies Mike Ryan declined to speculate on whether the virus escaped from a lab or emerged from a wet market. 

We were assured that this virus is natural in origin, and what is important is that we establish what the natural host for this virus is,” said Ryan. “The primary purpose of doing that is to ensure that…we understand how the animal-human species barrier was breached, [so] that we can put in place the necessary prevention and public health measures to prevent that happening again. Anywhere.”

Environmental health advocates have underlined that increased contact between wild animal species and humans in developing countries of Asia and Africa, as a result of urbanization and the degradation of wild animal habitats, as well as illegal wild meat capture, containment and consumption, has led to the ever more frequent transmission of zoonotic diseases to human populations in past decades, including HIV, Ebola and Nipah virus.  

And outbreaks of new diseases will pose an even greater risk in the future if the underlying environmental health and food safety drivers are not addressed.

Dr Tedros signs the WHO-EIB Memorandum of Understanding

WHO Signs MOU With European Investment Bank

At Friday’s press briefing, the WHO Director-General also signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the European Investment Bank – which aims to inject funding into the COVID-19 response into at least 10  African countries, as well as countries elsewhere with weaker health systems. 

The EIB’s commitments include freeing at least 1.4 billion EUR to address the health, social and economic impact of COVID-19 in Africa. However, Werner Hoyer, President of the European Investment Bank, told reporters that most of the funding would be provided in the form of loans.

The funding would also support continuation of other critical health services such as malaria elimination and antimicrobial resistance. 

The EIB president declined to comment on which nations would receive funding. 

“I must disappoint you, because this communication has not gone to the respective governments yet, and therefore I for the time being cannot respond to this. Together with our delegation with WHO, we will do this within the next couple of days,”  said Hoyer.

Werner Hoyer announces the European Investment Bank – WHO collaboration

The funding is yet another gesture of support from Europe at a time when US aid has been put on hold creating a funding crisis in WHO, which receives some 15% of its budget from Washington – much of it going to WHO’s African region.

In addition the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) this week issued a directive forbidding use of its overseas funding for the purchase of personal protective gear for health workers, such as masks and gloves, or for the purchase of respirators, The New Humanitarian reported.  

The move was widely seen as a political gesture by US President Donald Trump to his domestic base of support. As one Geneva-based NGO observer, said, “I think it’s because they’re afraid of Trump’s fan base saying, ‘we’re short of PPE, why are we giving it to foreigners?’” 

USAID also is one of the world’s largest bilateral donors to health systems in developing countries.

Cases Are Doubling In Nigeria’s Conflict Zones – Even As Cases Decline Elsewhere During African Lockdowns

Conflict-ridden areas in Nigeria have witnessed an uptick in new cases over the past week even as new cases declined elsewhere across the African continent. South Africa, Ghana, Mauritius, Botswana, Mauritania and Niger, which clamped down on movement three weeks ago, saw a decrease in new COVID-19 cases, said WHO Regional Director for Africa Matshidiso Rebecca Moeti, in a regular briefing on Thursday.

On Friday, about half of the 200 new COVID-19 cases were reported in historically unstable northeastern Nigeria, where over 180,000 people remain displaced after a fresh wave of violence in 2019. A hotspot of 80 new cases was reported in the northern Kano State, as well as smaller outbreaks in northeastern states Gombe, Bauchi, Borno. There are now a total of 1932 cases in the country. Daily new cases in Nigeria doubled on Tuesday compared to Monday’s numbers.

The main challenge in conflict-ridden zones is access, said Michel Yao, WHO Emergency Programme Manager for the Africa Region, in Thursday’s briefing.

“These [historically unstable] areas are a bit far from the capital city, and is where the centralization of some of the capacities like testing should be taken in place,” Yao said.

We need to be working closely with all humanitarian partners, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Agency (UNHCR), to assess these unstable areas, he added. The IOM, which frequently works with refugee and asylum seekers fleeing from conflict, is bracing itself for a potentially devastating COVID-19 outbreak in northeast Nigeria.

WHO AFRO Director Matshidiso Moeti speaks at Africa Media Leader Briefing on COVID-19 on April 30, 2020

In an unusual move by the WHO, the Regional Director for Africa pointed out by name countries who had been slow to implement WHO recommended strategies to slow the spread of the pandemic.

“Tanzania took some time to implement [their strategies] particularly the physical distancing measures” stated by Dr. Matshidiso Rebecca Moeti. “While schools were closed, places of worship were kept open. The gathering of people continued to happen in closed spaces. The prevention of travel from the epicenter also took some time to happen. After the lockdown was announced, many truck drivers left the country and have spread the infection to neighboring countries.”

Tanzania has 480 confirmed cases as of Friday, although concerns about test kit shortages have many experts concerned that cases are being undercounted across the continent.

Svet Lustig Vijay, Zixuan Yang and Grace Ren contributed to this story

Image Credits: Breaking Asia.