More than a year after the appearance of a new coronavirus in China, a team of experts from the World Health Organization finally arrived in the central city of Wuhan on Thursday to start looking for its source.
The investigation led by the team of 10 scientists is a crucial step in understanding how the virus was transmitted to humans from animals in order to prevent another pandemic. Getting answers will probably be difficult.
The Chinese government, notoriously suspicious of outside scrutiny, has repeatedly blocked the team’s arrival – and investigation. Even in the best-case scenario, a full investigation could take months or more. The team must also navigate China’s attempts to politicize the investigation.
Here’s what you need to know about the survey.
China has posed obstacles and pushed for control.
Visa delays. Quarantine rules. Political stone wall.
Seemingly worried about drawing renewed attention to the country’s early mistakes in handling the pandemic, Chinese officials have used various tactics over the past year to hamper the WHO’s investigation.
After resisting requests from other countries to allow independent investigators on its soil to study the origin of the pathogen, China finally let two WHO experts visit in July to lay the groundwork . Then, he quickly placed the team in quarantine for 14 days, forcing its members to do some of their detective work remotely.
They were not allowed to travel to Wuhan, where the virus first emerged.
For months, China delayed approving a visit from a full team of experts, frustrating health agency officials. When the visit appeared to be finalized earlier this month, it collapsed at the last minute when Beijing failed to provide visas to visitors, according to the health agency. Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the director general of the World Health Organization, issued a rare criticism to Beijing during a press conference, saying he was “very disappointed” by the delays.
The Chinese government has demanded that Chinese scientists oversee significant parts of the investigation. It limited the access of the World Health Agency to important research and data. The entire WHO team will have to undergo two weeks of quarantine in Wuhan before they can start research.
Critics say Beijing’s desire for control means the investigation will most likely be more political than scientific.
“You want this investigation to be thorough, non-politicized, independent and transparent,” said Yanzhong Huang, senior researcher for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations. “But we have to be realistic.”
Despite the troubles, WHO says it intends to conduct a rigorous and transparent study.
“WHO has been committed to investigating the origins of the virus from the start,” Tarik Jašarević, a spokesperson for the agency, said in a statement. “We call on all countries to support these efforts by being open and transparent.”
Testing for the virus will be a difficult task.
The team that arrived in Wuhan, according to official broadcaster CGTN, will face a city radically transformed since the outbreak of the virus at the end of 2019. The city that was locked down on January 23 last year and has become a symbol of virus. The devastation was touted by Chinese officials a year later as an achievement in overcoming the virus – a city reborn.
WHO experts have decades of experience in the fields of virus control, animal health and disease. They come from Great Britain, Germany, Japan, Russia, USA and other countries. Peter Daszak, a British disease ecologist, and Hung Nguyen, a Vietnamese scientist who studies zoonoses, are among the team members.
But finding the source of the virus that has killed nearly two million people around the world and infected more than 92 million on Thursday will be difficult. While experts believe the virus is naturally occurring in animals, possibly bats, little is known.
The team is expected to look at the first reported cases of the virus in China, most likely looking at data from samples collected at a large wet market in Wuhan that sold game meat and live animals. Many of the first reported infections were traced there.
The team’s access to China will be essential, according to public health experts.
They should be able to review all the data collected by the China Center for Disease Control on the outbreak, “including contact tracing, environmental sampling, genetic sequences and zero patient identification.” said Raina MacIntyre, head of the biosafety program at the Kirby Institute. from the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia. “It is important to do this in a holistic and transparent way.”
The health agency did not specify the duration of the investigation and did not publish a detailed itinerary for the team’s visit.
Marion Koopmans, a Dutch virologist on the WHO team, said the investigation was a “long-term project”.
“We will bring together all the scientific information already collected by our Chinese colleagues and discuss, ‘What does this tell us? She said in a recent interview with CGTN, China’s international television channel. “Is there any information we would like to add? How could this be done?
The team should avoid attempts to politicize its investigation.
The pandemic has damaged China’s reputation, with many foreign governments still angry that Beijing did not do more to contain the crisis in its infancy. Chinese propagandists are therefore trying to use the WHO investigation to help bolster China’s image and portray the country as a mature superpower.
“China is open, frank and sincere,” the state-run Xinhua news agency said in a comment on the investigation Wednesday.
The WHO itself has also come under attack from the Trump administration for appearing to bend to China’s will, even as the United States has come under fire for its ineffective response to the pandemic. Prior to the team’s arrival, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on twitter Tuesday: “The @WHO was corrupted by Chinese influence and bought at a low price. WHO investigators still cannot access Wuhan – a year after the first cases were reported? “
On the same day, Global Times, a state-run tabloid, wrote that the current visit showed that China “has always been committed to making its contribution to the global fight against the pandemic with a transparent and accountable attitude and a spirit of respect for science. “
The Chinese government has attempted to push unfounded theories that the virus emerged outside of China. Chinese scientists have suggested, without evidence, that packaged food from overseas could have brought the virus to China or that the pandemic could have started in India.
The heated political climate will make it difficult for the WHO to conduct an independent investigation, experts say.
“The main concern here is that the origin of the epidemic has been so politicized,” said Mr. Huang, the global health expert. “It really reduced the space for the WHO to conduct an independent, objective and scientific investigation.”
Albee Zhang and Claire Fu contributed to the research.