Former WHO expert urges focus on preparing for future pandemics rather than COVID-19 origin

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Professor of Infectious Disease Epidemiology at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine David Heymann

1st June 2023 – (Geneva) David Heymann, a former World Health Organisation (WHO) expert who led the global response to SARS in 2003, believes that focusing on the origin of the COVID-19 outbreak is not important. Instead, he believes it is more important to prepare for the next pandemic. Heymann said that while the last three outbreaks of SARS occurred due to laboratory accidents in Singapore, Taiwan, and China, no one knows what caused the 2019 outbreak in China. Therefore, he believes that the focus should be on mitigating risk factors that cause outbreaks.

Heymann believes that China needs to do a better job of preventing the emergence of infectious diseases that occur in markets. Studies conducted in Guangdong province after the SARS outbreak showed that 13% of market workers had coronavirus antibodies, compared to 3% in the general population. Heymann also noted that animal farms where they were raising wild animals had animals that had antibodies to coronavirus.

According to Heymann, China has risk factors in markets and risk factors in laboratories, as do all countries. Therefore, the lessons from the COVID-19 outbreak are that people need to understand the risks from live animal markets and to mitigate those risks. Additionally, there need to be controls over laboratories, developed by scientists working in those laboratories, to ensure there are no accidental releases of viruses.

Heymann reiterated that the origin of the virus has not been established. An un-peer-reviewed study claimed it was “beyond reasonable doubt” that COVID-19 emerged from a laboratory in China, which attracted media coverage in Taiwan and some international attention. However, Heymann emphasised that until there is definitive data, everything else is hypothesis. He added that this is the norm among public health experts.