- On Thursday, a team of World Health Organization (WHO) experts arrived in Wuhan to launch inquiry into the source of the coronavirus
- The team will spend about a month in the Wuhan, including two quarantine weeks
- More than a year after the pandemic started, the long-delayed WHO trip comes and has triggered political tensions over claims Beijing tried to thwart the project
On Thursday, a global team of researchers from WHO arrived at Wuhan, China, where the novel coronavirus pandemic was first identified, to perform a politically charged investigation into its origins in the face of doubt as to whether Beijing might attempt to prevent embarrassing discoveries.
After months of diplomatic wrangling that triggered an extraordinary public complaint by the head of the World Health Organization (WHO), the 10-member team sent to Wuhan, China by the World Health Organization was approved by China’s President Xi Jinping’s government. They came on Thursday, China Global Television Network (CGTN) state media announced on Thursday.
Scientists believe that the virus that has killed 1.9 million people since late 2019 has moved from bats or other animals to humans, most likely in the southwest of China. Stung by accusations that it permitted the disease to spread, the ruling Communist Party claims the virus originated from abroad, probably imported seafood, but that is denied by scientists.
Viruses and other specialists from the US, Russia, Australia, the Netherlands, Britain, Germany, Japan, Qatar and Vietnam are part of the WHO team.
A government spokesman said they would “exchange views” with Chinese scientists this week, but gave no indication whether they would be authorized to collect evidence.
According to a post on CGTN’s official Weibo account, they will undergo a two-week quarantine as well as a throat swab examination and an antibody test for Covid-19. They are to start working while in quarantine with Chinese experts via video conference.
After the Trump administration blamed Beijing for the spread of the virus, China dismissed demands for an international investigation, which plunged the global economy into its worst recession since the 1930s.
Beijing retaliated by banning imports of Australian beef, wine and other products after Australia called for an independent inquiry in April.
One possibility is that in November, one of the WHO team members, zoologist Peter Daszak of the U.S. group EcoHealth Alliance, told the Associated Press, a wildlife poacher may have transmitted the virus to traders who took it to Wuhan.
It is doubtful that a single visit by scientists will confirm the source of the virus; pinning down the animal reservoir of an outbreak is usually an exhaustive undertaking that requires years of study, including animal sampling, genetic analysis and epidemiological studies.
Shin-Ru Shih, director of Chang Gung University of Taiwan’s Research Center for Emerging Viral Infections said, “The government should be very transparent and collaborative.”
The Chinese government has been attempting to stir doubt about the sources of the virus. It has supported hypotheses that the outbreak may have begun with imports of infected seafood, a notion dismissed by international scientists and agencies, with little evidence.
“In other places, the WHO will need to conduct similar investigations,” National Health Commission official Mi Feng said Wednesday.
A week ago, some of the World Health Organisation (WHO) team were on their way to Wuhan, China but had to turn back after Beijing stated that they had not obtained valid visas.
That may have been a “bureaucratic bungle,” but Adam Kamradt-Scott, a health specialist at the University of Sydney, said the incident “raises the question of whether the Chinese authorities were trying to interfere.”
The Wuhan Institute of Virology in the town where the outbreak started is a potential target for researchers. One of China’s top research laboratories for virus research, after the 2003 outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, it established an archive of genetic knowledge about bat coronaviruses.
There are no plans to determine whether there may have been an accidental release of the coronavirus at the Wuhan lab, according to the published WHO agenda for its original study, as some American politicians, including President Donald Trump, have alleged.
Mark Woolhouse, an epidemiologist at the University of Edinburgh, said a “scientific audit” of Institute documents and safety measures would be a “routine activity.” It depends, he said, on how eager the Chinese authorities are to exchange data.
Mark Woolhouse added, “There is a great element of trust here.”
An AP investigation found that the government had placed restrictions on outbreak studies and prohibited scientists from talking to reporters.
Woolhouse further added, “The exact origin of the coronavirus can never be traced because, viruses shift rapidly.”
Although identifying exactly the same Covid-19 virus in animals as in humans may be difficult, finding closely related viruses may help explain how the disease first spread from animals and clarify what preventive measures are required to avoid potential epidemics.
Instead, scientists should concentrate on developing a “comprehensive image” of the virus to help respond to potential outbreaks, Woolhouse said.
“Now is not the time, to blame anyone,” Shin-Ru Shih said, “We shouldn’t say it’s your fault.