Where is the new coronavirus hiding? Where does it live? Most importantly, will it re-emerge to infect more people and start to spread? No one has answers to those questions at present. But the World Health Organization is hoping to put together a more comprehensive picture of the mysterious and occasionally deadly virus next week.
The WHO is hosting a meeting on Monday and Tuesday in Cairo, pulling together researchers who work on coronaviruses, public health officials who have been involved in the outbreak and others who can help to flesh out what is known so far. Among those attending will be people who led responses to other emerging disease outbreaks, such as the 2003 SARS crisis. Someone from Canada has been invited to attend to discuss the country’s SARS experience, but the WHO won’t reveal the list of the invitees.
In part, a WHO official admits, the aim is to encourage more sharing of information than has occurred up to date. Between 25 and 30 people have been invited, and the meeting will be held behind closed doors.
“Often what we find is that people who are involved in research are reluctant to share preliminary findings,” said Dr. Anthony Mounts, the WHO’s point person for the coronavirus investigation.
“(It’s) partly because they want to publish but I think also because there’s a reluctance to share stuff that they’re not quite confident in yet, because it’s still preliminary. But we find that when they come to meetings like this they’re much more willing to share it openly.”
Among those expected to attend is Dr. Ian Lipkin, director of the Center for Infection and Immunity at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health in New York. Lipkin is an expert on emerging infectious diseases; a brief biography on his centre’s website says he has identified at least 400 previously unknown viruses in the past decade.
Lipkin travelled to Saudi Arabia last fall to try to find the source of the new coronavirus, and a comment he made to the journal Nature suggests he found something. But he hasn’t shared that information in any depth and most observers believe a publication is probably pending. (Scientific journals typically won’t publish findings that have already been reported elsewhere.)
The Nature article, published in early December, said Lipkin revealed he had discovered that partial genetic sequences of a virus from bats match the new coronavirus. “The finding gives insight into the original source of the virus,” he told Nature.