SCIO briefing on white paper 'Fighting COVID-19: China in Action'

​The State Council Information Office (SCIO) held a press conference on June 7 to brief the media on its new white paper: "Fighting COVID-19: China in Action." June 10, 2020

Bloomberg News:

I want to ask about the search for the origins of the virus. Are there any updates you can share with us about how that is progressing? And how is international cooperation working to that effort?

Wang Zhigang:

Thank you for your question. As COVID-19 has spread around the world, we should search for its origin, trace its progression, find out where it came from and where it will go, and identify its transmission routes. These are the responsibilities of scientists around the world, and are also a key part of the scientific research into the pandemic. Since the outbreak, China has attached great importance to researching the origin of the virus, in order to study the natural history of its outbreak and progression, and discover the underlying scientific rules. We have made arrangements in this regard since the outset.

In terms of internal logic, determining the origin of a virus is a scientific issue that involves multiple disciplines, including epidemiology as Mr. Ma Xiaowei and Mr. Wang Chen mentioned just now, as well as pathogenic biology, molecular informatics, mathematical statistics and big data. In addition, the whole process of tracing the virus' origins requires very strict logic and solid evidence. So, we should rely on scientists and adopt a science-based attitude and approaches in our work.

At the same time, the only purpose of tracing the origin of the virus is to scientifically respond to the common threat against humankind, namely the novel coronavirus. Specifically speaking, on the one hand, it will allow us to prevent similar outbreaks from happening again. We need to find out where it came from, where it will go, how it parasitizes as a protein, how it poses a threat to human health, and how it is transmitted from animals. There are many assumptions. In short, we should serve one general purpose, which is to prevent similar outbreaks and learn how to deal with them if they happen. On the other hand, if we want to work out a scientific plan for preventing and controlling epidemics and treating diseases, we must trace the virus' origin in a more scientific way. Only by making the tracing work more scientific, effective and targeted, can we carry out the vaccine research and development, drug screening, new drug development, and the scientific research of testing reagents according to developments and changes in the virus. Therefore, that is our only purpose. This is a scientific issue, which should be carried out mainly by scientists. It is a scientific question that needs to be solved and answered. It is science that should be used to support the human response to the pandemic, and eventually stop it. 

The work to trace the origin of the virus is mainly being carried out by scientists, including those from the Chinese Academy of Sciences, the Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences, universities, and enterprises. They are playing a leading role by using various scientific methods, including pathogenic biology, molecular informatics, mathematical statistics, artificial intelligence, big data and other methods just mentioned, and focusing on tracing animals, crowds of people, molecules and the environment in a science-based way.

At present, some achievements have been published in academic papers. By the end of May, Chinese scientists had published 206 papers, overseas research teams published 282 papers, and Chinese scientists, U.S. scientist and British scientists jointly published 19 papers on the origin of the virus. A global information database has been built, collecting 36,442 COVID-19 gene sequences shared worldwide, of which 18,967 are high-quality virus sequences. These achievements are contributions made by scientists to determine the origin of the virus.

But we must recognize that tracing the origin of a virus has always been a scientific challenge throughout human history, especially when it comes to a new virus like the novel coronavirus. We still have a lot to learn about it. Next, we will continue to adopt a science-based attitude, rely on scientists, and carry out more research using scientific methodology. We should also respect science and hold a pure and simple attitude towards the research, that is, it should support our response to COVID-19 — the common threat to humankind. I mentioned this when answering questions on vaccines earlier: whether it is vaccines, drugs, prevention and control plans, diagnostic methods, or the construction of animal models — all of them need the backing of virus source tracing. Therefore, we are still working on it. The entire Chinese science and technology community is still researching and developing vaccines, screening drugs, and developing new drugs, as well as antibody drugs. These also need the support of virus origin tracing. 

Thank you. 

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