The team is expected to examine samples taken in and around Wuhan’s Huanan Seafood Market and study information about the first people who got infected.
(CN) — A year after China reported the world’s first death caused by the novel coronavirus, the World Health Organization said on Monday that an international team of experts is headed to China to investigate how the pandemic started.
The mission will focus on trying to figure out how people got infected with the virus during the initial outbreak in the central Chinese city of Wuhan last December. By Jan. 11, 2020, China reported that a 61-year-old man had died from the virus, the first official death in a pandemic that has since left nearly 2 million people dead and more than 91 million people infected.
“The research, the studies, begin in Wuhan; they begin where the first initial patients were identified and then there will be many more studies that will follow on from there,” said Maria Van Kerkhove, the WHO’s technical lead on the coronavirus pandemic, at a Monday news briefing in the agency’s Geneva headquarters.
But the probe is also politically charged as it takes place in an atmosphere of growing distrust of China among Western nations. The team’s treatment and access to information will be a critical test of China’s willingness to open its records to the world.
Scientists generally believe the novel coronavirus originated in bats in China and the chief mystery is figuring out how the virus got from bats into humans. Many human diseases are caused by viruses that come from animals, such as the Ebola virus and influenza viruses.
But adding to the intrigue over this coronavirus is the fact that a high-security laboratory in Wuhan, the Wuhan Virology Institute, specializes in the study of coronaviruses. Without providing any proof, the United States has alleged the virus came from the lab.
The U.S. and Australia have pushed the hardest to get a team of scientists into China, prompting a furious response from Beijing, including trade retaliations against Australia and a deepening of its conflict with the U.S.
The WHO team includes representatives from the U.S., Australia, Russia, Denmark, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Vietnam, Germany, Qatar and Japan. Peter Daszak, a British-born expert in new diseases, is the U.S. representative. He runs the New York-based EcoHealth Alliance, a nonprofit that studies emerging diseases. He has links to the Wuhan lab.
The investigators are expected to work with Chinese experts when they get to China after they arrive on Thursday.
Already, though, the mission has been marred by China’s actions. It was scheduled to begin work in China last week but its arrival was unexpectedly blocked, prompting the WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus to declare last Monday he was “very disappointed.”
Tedros said both sides had agreed the team would arrive in early January but that China had not “finalized the necessary permissions for the team’s arrival.” Two members of the team were en route to China and returned home. China’s foreign ministry later claimed there was a misunderstanding.
China’s actions last week will only add to suspicions against it. The authoritarian Chinese regime is accused of withholding information about what it knew about the virus, keeping quiet about the outbreak in Wuhan and even punishing doctors and others warning about a new virus.
China officially informed the WHO about a cluster of pneumonias in Wuhan on Dec. 31, 2019, that were linked to the Huanan Seafood Market, a so-called “wet market” where wild animals were sold. Since then, studies have suggested the coronavirus appeared earlier than December and that the seafood market amplified the virus.
Chinese scientists have their own theories and suggested that the virus may not have originated in China at all. Chinese authorities have said they have found imported foods contaminated with the virus. Adding to the mystery of the virus’ origins are studies in Europe suggesting the virus was present there before last December.
Still, China’s behavior has come under fire. In December, the New York Times and ProPublica reported on how Chinese officials in the early days and weeks of the Wuhan outbreak censored information about the pandemic, ordered Chinese media to downplay the seriousness of the virus and cracked down on people deemed to be stirring up panic about the outbreak. Also, Western journalists investigating the possible origins of the virus have reported being followed by plainclothes agents and being blocked from reaching caves where scientists believe bats carrying the virus may dwell.
The WHO team is expected to examine samples taken in and around the Huanan Seafood Market and study information about the first people who got infected. In addition, the team is interested in examining the possibility that the virus may have accidentally leaked from the Wuhan lab, according to news reports.
For its part, the WHO is straining to present itself as impartial and guided by science as the team heads to China.
President Donald Trump accuses the agency of helping China cover up the Wuhan outbreak by not taking a more critical line against China. Trump’s row with the agency led him to withdraw from the United Nations health agency. President-elect Joe Biden is expected to reverse that decision and cooperate with the WHO, though it is likely his administration will continue to take a hard line against China.
“Let’s give this team of scientists the space to work with their Chinese counterparts effectively and let’s wish them all well,” Tedros said on Monday.
The WHO chief said getting to the bottom of how the virus spilled over into humanity “is important not just for Covid-19 but for the future of global health security and to manage emerging disease threats with pandemic potential.”
Dr. Mike Ryan, the WHO head of emergencies, warned against using the investigation as a way to blame China for the pandemic.
“Understanding the origin of disease is not about finding somebody to blame,” he said. “Let this mission … be about the science, not about the politics. We are looking for the answers here that may save us in the future, not culprits.”
He charged that the urge to find blame for the pandemic “doesn’t help science” and makes the work of the WHO harder.
“If the perception of our member states is that we’re an investigation outfit, that we have some objective other than the science, then it makes it very difficult for us to operate,” he said. “When we have the trust of our member states, when everybody believes that the objective is one of science and public health, then we can make huge progress.”
Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.