Bangladesh scientists stick to earlier findings after China's COVID-19 origin claim

Manzur H Maswood | Published: 23:50, Nov 29,2020 | Updated: 19:31, Nov 30,2020


Bangladeshi scientists said that they still stuck to the finding from their study on the genomic epidemiology of COVID-19 that SARS-COV-2, the strain of coronavirus that causes COVID-19, was imported to the country from foreign lands.

Their assertion came after a paper by researchers at China’s Shanghai Institute for Biological Sciences suggested that the novel coronavirus existed on the Indian subcontinent, including Bangladesh, before the Wuhan outbreak in December last year.

The Bangladeshi study jointly conducted by the Institute of Epidemiology, Disease Control and Research and the International Centre for Diarrhoeal Disease Research, Bangladesh in October ascertained importations of SARS-COV-2 — particularly from India, Saudi Arabia, the USA and the UK.

‘The IEDCR and the ICDDR,B have jointly conducted a genomic research on COVID-19 in Bangladesh and we stick to our findings unless any scientifically-proven outcome contradicted the findings,’ the government disease monitoring arm IEDCR’s director Tahmina Shirin told New Age. 

Several Bangladeshi scientists, including Tahmina, said that they would not comment on the Chinese study that said that the novel coronavirus originated in Bangladesh and India.

Scientists at the IEDCR and the ICDDR, B said that they were not in a position to comment on the Chinese findings as they were not involved in the study and that the study was still in a preprint stage. 

‘We are not involved in the study and it’s still a preprint study,’ Tahmina said.

Bangladesh’s study findings disseminated on October 12 said that the novel coronavirus was imported to Bangladesh in mid-February and it spread all over the country by March.

The study found that 19 distinct SARS-COV-2 lineages or descendants were spreading in Bangladesh.

The three main localised lineages found in the country were B.1.1, B.1.1.25 and B.1.36.

Lineages B.1.1 and B.1.1.25 spread to all the eight divisions of the country while B.1.36 was confined mostly to Chattogram division, the study found.

Tahmina Shirin was the lead researcher of the study.

‘We have nothing to comment on the Chinese study but we can talk about our own findings,’ she said on Sunday.

ICDDR,B senior scientist K Zaman also declined to comment on the Chinese study.

‘It’s difficult to comment on the Chinese study as it’s still in a preprint stage,’ said Zaman, who is leading an ICDDR,B team on COVID-19 vaccine trial.

Battling a global adversity over the coronavirus onset and bracing for a World Health Organisation inquiry over its origin, China on Friday claimed that just the first detection of COVID-19 cases in Wuhan did not mean that the contagion originated from the central Chinese city.

The research, titled ‘The Early Cryptic Transmission and Evolution of Sars-Cov-2 in Human Hosts’, challenges the general orthodoxy among scientists that the virus originated in the wet markets of Wuhan.

The WHO’s top emergency expert on Friday said  that it would be ‘highly speculative’ for the WHO to say that the coronavirus did not emerge in China, where it was first identified in a food market in December last year, according to Reuters.

‘I think it’s highly speculative for us to say that the disease did not emerge in China,’ Mike Ryan said at a virtual briefing in Geneva after being asked if COVID-19 could have first emerged outside China.

‘It is clear from a public health perspective that you start your investigations where the human cases first emerged,’ he added, saying that evidence might then lead to other places.

He repeated that the WHO intended to send researchers to the Wuhan food market to further probe the virus origin.

The Chinese study results were posted on SSRN.Com, the preprint platform of medical journal The Lancet, on 17 November and based its findings on research into strains of the virus provided by 17 countries, according to media reports.

The paper, which is yet to be peer-reviewed, used a method called phylogenetic analysis in which scientists studied the mutations of the virus to assess its origin.

The phylogenetic analysis ruled out Wuhan as a site of the coronavirus origin but nominated Bangladesh, India, the US, Greece, Australia, Italy, Czech Republic, Russia, and Serbia as potential sites.

According to the paper, since India and Bangladesh reported the least number of mutations and are neighbouring countries to China, the scientists have estimated that the Indian subcontinent may be the origin of the first COVID-19 transmission.

The research, led by Dr Shen Libing, claimed that the traditional approach to tracing the origin of the coronavirus strains did not work as it used a bat virus discovered in Yunnan, southwest China, several years ago.

A WHO team, which is to investigate the virus origin, is due to arrive in China though Beijing is yet to provide a timeline.

COVID-19 cases first emerged in Wuhan in December last year before turning into a global pandemic with the worldwide death toll crossing over 1.4 million.

Bangladesh, reporting its first cases on March 8, has so far tallied 4.62 lakh cases with around 6,600 deaths.

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