More than a year after a new coronavirus first emerged in China, a team of experts from the World Health Organization arrived in downtown Wuhan on Thursday to look for its source.
As a sign of Beijing’s continued efforts to control the investigation, the team of scientists and WHO staff encountered obstacles almost immediately. Two scientists were unable to enter China at the last minute and stayed in Singapore because they tested positive for coronavirus antibodies, the WHO said in a Twitter post.
The Chinese authorities demanded a two-week quarantine from the remaining 13 experts in Wuhan, where the virus first appeared in late 2019.
Research is a critical step in understanding how the virus jumped from animals to humans so that another pandemic can be avoided. Getting answers will most likely be difficult.
The Chinese government, known to have no outside control, has repeatedly obstructed the team’s arrival and investigation. Even in the best of circumstances, a full exam can take months, if not longer. The team must also steer China’s attempts to politicize the investigation.
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China set hurdles and urged control.
Visa delays. Quarantine rules. Political stone wall.
Apparently concerned about redirecting attention to the country’s early mistakes in dealing with the pandemic, Chinese officials used various tactics over the past year to obstruct the WHO’s investigation.
After China resisted demands from other nations to allow independent researchers on its soil to investigate the pathogen’s origin, China finally invited two WHO experts to visit in July to lay the foundations. Then the team was immediately quarantined for 14 days and its members forced to do some of their detective work remotely.
They were not allowed to visit Wuhan, where the virus first appeared.
China delayed approval of a full team of experts for a visit for months, frustrating health department leaders. When the visit appeared to be completed earlier this month, it fell apart at the last minute when Beijing failed to provide visas for visitors, according to the health department. Dr. World Health Organization director general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus issued a rare reprimand against Beijing at a press conference, saying he was “very disappointed” with the delays.
The Chinese government has requested that Chinese scientists oversee key parts of the investigation. It has also restricted the global health agency’s access to key research and data.
The arrival of the experts was covered extensively in the Chinese state news media on Thursday and trumpeted as a sign of China’s transparency. However, a few hours after the scientists landed, WHO announced that two members of the team could not join.
“Two scientists are still in #Singapore and are taking tests for # COVID19,” said a post published on the agency’s Twitter account. The WHO said all members of the team had a negative test for virus and coronavirus antibodies before traveling.
Critics say Beijing’s desire for control means that the investigation will most likely be more political than scientific.
“They want this investigation to be thorough, non-politicizable, independent and transparent,” said Yanzhong Huang, senior fellow on global health at the Council on Foreign Relations. “But we have to be realistic.”
Jan. 14, 2021 at 12:11 AM ET
Despite the problems, the WHO intends to conduct a rigorous and transparent study.
“From the outset, WHO made a commitment to investigate the origins of the virus,” Tarik Jašarević, a spokesman for the agency, said in a statement. “We call on all countries to support these efforts through openness and transparency.”
Tracking down the virus will be a tedious task.
The team, which has arrived in Wuhan, according to official broadcaster CGTN, will be faced with a city that has changed radically since the virus first appeared in late 2019. The city, which was locked down on January 23 last year and became the symbol of the virus’s devastation, stopped a year later by Chinese officials as a success story in overcoming the virus – a city reborn.
WHO experts have decades of experience in research into viruses, animal health and disease control. They come from the UK, Germany, Japan, Russia, the US and other countries. Peter Daszak, a British disease ecologist, and Hung Nguyen, a Vietnamese scientist studying zoonotic diseases, are among the team members.
However, finding the source of the virus, which has killed nearly two million people worldwide and infected more than 92 million as of Thursday, will be arduous. While experts believe the virus came naturally from animals, possibly bats, little else is known.
The team is expected to investigate the earliest reported cases of the virus in China and, most likely, to examine data from samples collected in a sprawling wet market in Wuhan that sold game meat and live animals. Many of the first reported infections have been traced there.
How much access the team in China gets will be crucial, according to public health experts.
You should be able to review all of the data collected by the Chinese Center for Disease Control on the outbreak, “including contact tracing, environmental sampling, genetic sequences and patient zero identification,” said Raina MacIntyre, director of biosecurity programs at the University of New’s Kirby Institute South Wales in Sydney, Australia. “It is important to do this comprehensively and transparently.”
The health department has not specified how long the examination will take, nor has published a detailed itinerary for the team’s visit.
Marion Koopmans, a Dutch virologist on the WHO team, said the study was a “long-term project”.
“We will summarize and discuss all the scientific information that has already been collected by our colleagues in China:” What does this tell us? “She said in a recent interview with CGTN, the Chinese international broadcaster.” Is there any information we’d like to add? How could that be done? “
The team must bypass attempts to politicize its investigation.
The pandemic has damaged China’s reputation, and many foreign governments are still angry that Beijing did nothing more to contain the crisis at its earliest stages. Chinese propagandists are therefore trying to use the WHO investigation to strengthen China’s image and portray the country as a mature superpower.
“China is open, frank and righteous,” Xinhua, the official news agency, said in a comment on the investigation on Wednesday.
The WHO itself has also been under attack by the Trump administration for appearing to bow to the will of China, despite criticism of the United States for its ineffective response to the pandemic. Before the team landed, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Twitter Tuesday, “The @WHO has been corrupted and bought cheap by China’s influence. WHO investigators still have no access to Wuhan – a year after the first cases were reported? “
On the same day, Global Times, a national tabloid, wrote that the upcoming visit showed that China “has always sought to contribute to the global fight against the pandemic with a transparent, responsible attitude and a spirit of respect for science.”
The Chinese government has tried to advance unsubstantiated theories that the virus emerged outside of China. Chinese scientists have suggested with no evidence that packaged foods 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 WHO to conduct an independent investigation, experts say.
“The main concern here is that the origin of the outbreak has been so politicized,” said Huang, the global health expert. “That has really limited the space for independent, objective and scientific investigation of the WHO.”
Albee Zhang and Claire Fu did research.