A delegation of scientists probing the origins of the coronavirus are wrapping up a lengthy investigation in China and have found important clues about the famous Wuhan seafood market's role in the pandemic outbreak. Some initial findings are expected to be released this week.
Dr Peter Daszak, a New York-based zoologist assisting the World Health Organization-sponsored mission said the 14-member group worked with experts in China and visited key hotspots and research centers to uncover some real clues about what happened.
Investigators want to know how the Sars-CoV-2 virus - whose closest known relative came from bats over 1,600km away - spread explosively in Wuhan before causing the worst contagion in more than a century.
Dr Daszak said the investigation heralds a turning point in pandemic mitigation. It's the beginning of hopefully a really deep understanding of what happened so we can stop the next one, he said over Zoom.
That's what this is all about - trying to understand why these things emerge so we don't continually have global economic crashes and horrific mortality while we wait for vaccines. It's just not a tenable future.
Worldwide, Covid-19 has caused more than 105.7 million infections and 2.3 million deaths.
The WHO was asked in May last year to help identify the zoonotic source of the virus and the route of introduction to the human population, including the possible role of intermediate hosts.
The lack of a clear pathway from bats to humans has stoked speculation - refuted by Dr Daszak and many other scientists, that the virus might have escaped from the Wuhan Institute of Virology, a maximum bio-containment laboratory studying bat-borne coronaviruses.
Scientists visited the lab and asked Dr Shi Zhengli, who has collected and analyzed these viruses for more than a decade, about the research and the earliest known coronavirus cases.
We really have to cover the whole gamut of key lines of investigation, Dr Daszak said. To be fair to our hosts here in China, they've been doing the same for the last few months. They've been working behind the scenes, digging up the information, looking at it and getting it ready.
The work has been collaborative, with Chinese counterparts helping mission investigators dig deeper for clues, he said.
We sat down with them every single day and went through information, new data, and then said we want to go to the key places, the British scientist said. They asked for a list. We suggested where we should go and the people we should meet. We went to every place on that list and they were really forthcoming with that.
Dr Daszak is one of 10 independent experts assisting the WHO mission. The agency also has five staff members participating, and the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization and the Paris-based World Organization for Animal Health have two each.