Big Books & Bold Ideas with Kerri Miller

Why we still don’t know for sure how COVID-19 started

A man gestures while speaking.
World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus talks during a press briefing on COVID-19 at the WHO headquarters in Geneva in March last year.
Fabrice Coffrini | AFP via Getty Images 2020

More than a year after COVID-19 first appeared in China, scientists are still trying to pinpoint its origin.

A team of researchers working with the World Health Organization issued a report this week arguing the most likely explanation is that the virus jumped from a bat to another animal and then to humans. It can take years to determine the exact source of a virus, and the WHO didn’t rule out any hypotheses. But the report deemed spread from a lab to be the least likely explanation.

The continued uncertainty has geopolitical ramifications and has strained U.S.-China relations.  Determining the origin of the virus could also help public health officials respond more effectively the next time a new, highly contagious disease emerges.

Two researchers joined MPR News host Kerri Miller Wednesday to discuss why it has been so difficult to definitively trace the source of COVID-19.


  • Christine Petersen is the director of the Center for Emerging Infectious Diseases and a professor at the University of Iowa.

  • Samuel Scarpino is an assistant professor at Northeastern University and director of the Emergent Epidemics Lab.

To listen to the full conversation you can use the audio player above.

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