As WHO Team Finally Arrives In Wuhan To Investigate SARS-CoV2 Virus Origins – Two Members Left Behind In Singapore
A doctor preparing to administer a Sinopharm COVID-19 vaccine in China.

After months of delay, a pared-down WHO research team charged with investigating the origins of the SARS-CoV2 virus finally arrived in China on Thursday – but two members of the team were left behind in Singapore after they tested positive for COVID-19 antibodies, WHO said.

In the 24 hours since, one of these two members – a British scientist – has now been permitted to enter after reportedly testing negative on subsequent tests. The remaining team member – a scientist from Qatar – still tested positive, China’s Foreign Ministry confirmed.

The remaining WHO team members flew directly to Wuhan, where the first clusters of SARS-CoV2 virus cases in humans first emerged just over a year ago, and were set to begin work with their Chinese colleagues remotely while they waited out a 14-day quarantine.

A brief update on their activities was provided at the WHO press briefing on Friday, however, officials emphasized the independence the team will need to conduct their investigation. “What we need to do is let them do the work and carry that out and put the information that all of them are learning together into context,” said Maria Van Kerkhove, WHO COVID-19 Technical Lead. “Let’s let them follow the science and we’ll report when we can.”

The team of scientists are “a wonderful group of people, and we trust that with the cooperation and the hospitality of the Chinese government and Chinese people and the authorities in Hubei and Wuhan, we will have a successful mission,” said Mike Ryan, WHO’s Executive Director of WHO’s Health Emergencies Programme, on Friday.

The arrival of the team coincided with a domestic surge in COVID-19 cases in China, where some 22 million people were placed under lockdown after the nation recorded its highest one-day incidence of new COVID-19 cases since July. Outbreaks were concentrated in three cities of Hebei Province – a northern Chinse province near Beijing that was the site of the imperial summer residences of Qing-dynasty leaders. 

The WHO team investigating the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic arriving at the Wuhan Tianhe International Airport on Thursday.

According to the WHO, the two members of team remaining in Singapore had tested positive on IgM antibody tests, which indicates that they may have a recent infection – even though other tests had been negative. The team members will undergo further testing, and WHO said it would provide an update on their status.

During the Wuhan quarantine period, the team will work remotely with counterparts at the China CDC, health ministry, and research centers, whom they will also meet in person after two weeks. The experts will then visit sites and conduct research for the investigation. 

“The idea is to advance a number of studies that were already designed and decided upon months ago to get a better understanding of what happened last year in December,” said Peter Ben Embarak, expert on food safety and zoonosis at WHO and WHO coordinator of the expert team, in a WHO interview released on Wednesday. “[We] will be looking in more detail at the initial cases [and]…the famous market…trying to find out everything that went in and out of that market in the weeks ahead of the event.”

Many, but not all, of the first cases were concentrated around the Wuhan Seafood Market, where wild animals were typically kept alive in pens, before being slaughtered for shoppers, in conditions that allowed viruses to fester and potentially infect humans.  Even so, not all of the first SARS-CoV2 cases have been traced to the market.

“It could be a very long journey before we get a full understanding of what happened,” he added. “I don’t think we will have clear answers after this initial mission, but we will be on the way and hopefully in the coming months, that will be completed by additional missions and additional studies.”

In contrast to its actions two weeks ago, When China barred the mission’s entry at the last minute over alleged VISA issues, China’s National Health Commission said that the country was willing to cooperate with the investigation. 

But it highlighted what it said was a need for the hunt for the virus origins to be on a worldwide scale.  

“Origin-tracing of the novel coronavirus is a scientific matter, and should be conducted in cooperation [with] scientists across the world,” said Zhao Lijian, a Foreign Ministry spokesperson, in a press release. “With constantly intensified knowledge about the virus, and the discovery of more early cases, it is highly likely that origin-tracing will involve many places across the world, and the WHO will conduct similar inspections in other countries if needed.”

Over the past few months, China’s state-controlled news channels have begun to construct an alternative narrative, claiming that the human infections with SARS-CoV2 may not have first originated in China at all – even though China is the place where the most genetically comparable strains of coronaviruses have been reported to be circulating in the wild, in bat populations in Hunnan province.   Foreign journalists and researchers have been recently barred, however, from accessing those remote rural sites.

There have meanwhile been months of delay, first in forming the 10-member team of international experts that was mandated by the World Health Assembly in May to conduct the investigation, followed by more delays in getting China’s agreement to permit the visit.

Surge of Cases in China 

Most of the new cases were reported in the cities of Shijiazhuang, Xingtai and Langfang – located in the province neighbouring Beijing. The outbreak is suspected to have arisen from a series of weddings and funerals. 

The National Health Commission of the People’s Republic of China reported its first COVID-19 death in eight months on Wednesday in Hebei province. According to state health agencies, no deaths have been reported on mainland China since May, however, the WHO has recorded 12 deaths so far in 2021 in the nation – a discrepancy that has not been explained by Chinese health officials.

Authorities have implemented stringent restrictions and have stepped up screening and prevention measures. Bans on gatherings, outbound travel, school meetings, and the provincial Communist Party conference have been established and millions are under stay-at-home orders. 

Efforts to tackle the outbreaks have been swift, particularly as fears of the development of more clusters mount ahead of the week-long Lunar New Year holiday next month. Over 3,000 medical workers were mobilised to assist with a mass testing programme, which has tested more than 10 million people since early last week. 

A citywide testing programme in Langfang was begun on Tuesday, which plans to test 5 million people in three days, while residents in Shijiazhuang and Xingtai will go through a second round of mass testing, the National Health Commission announced on Wednesday. 

Concern about the outbreak is especially high, given its proximity to Beijing and the upcoming annual meetings of the national legislature and advisory conference. The Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) published a press release last week, emphasising the need to “resolutely safeguard the safety of the capital,” trace the origins of the outbreak, and strictly control movement in the city. 

“Due to the special security needs of the capital and the flow of people and freight between Beijing and Hebei, [we must] heighten our sense of responsibility to reduce the risks of importing cases,” said the government of Tongzhou, a district in Beijing bordering two Hebei cities. 

China plans to continue with its goal of inoculating 50 million people prior to the Lunar New Year, when hundreds of millions are expected to travel. Over 9 million doses of the Sinopharm COVID-19 vaccine have been administered nationwide as of Monday, with the prioritisation of health care workers, workers handling imported cold-chain food, and high risk individuals.

Officials have reassured the public that the outbreaks are under control, while also advising individuals to avoid public gatherings and travel ahead of and during the holiday.

“I’m deeply confident that the epidemic spread in Shijiazhuang will be controlled within a month,” Zhang Wenhong, leader of the Shanghai team of experts responsible for the clinical management of COVID-19 cases, said in a press release. “Individuals should stay alert to the pandemic but there’s no need to be excessively nervous.” 

Image Credits: CGTN, 中国新闻网.

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