WHO Stresses That China Trip To Investigate SARS-CoV2 Virus Origins is Not About Blame; Urges All Countries to Improve Genome Sequencing Research 
WHO has said that its investigation into the origins of the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic – although starting in Wuhan – is not about assigning blame, but rather is about improving global health.

The World Health Organization (WHO) research investigation in China to study the origin of the SARS-CoV2 virus that triggered a worldwide pandemic of COVID-19 is not intended to apportion blame, Executive Director of WHO’s Health Emergencies Programme Michael Ryan stressed in a press briefing on Monday.

The statement was made hours after WHO Executive Director Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus confirmed that the international team of 10 would finally be traveling to China on 14 January.

The build-up to this moment has been defined by months of roadblocks, delaying the team’s formation and then it’s dispatch. Most recently, on 5 January, WHO confirmed that two members of its 10-person mission were turned away at China’s doorstep, after official visa approvals that WHO understood to be finalized were held up at the last minute.

China’s state-controlled news channels have meanwhile also been spinning claims that human infections from SARS-CoV2 may not have first originated in the China at all – reflecting the official jitters in Beijing over any research that might clearly pin the virus origins onto China’s map.

But the planned investigation is not a matter of assigning blame, Ryan asserted during Monday’s media briefing. “It is about finding the scientific answers about the very important interface between the animal kingdom and the human kingdom.”

He also stressed that species-jumps to humans from the animal kingdom – like the jump believed to have caused the current pandemic – are “not a new thing,” noting that all influenza pandemics have occurred in similar circumstances.

Dr Michael Ryan, Executive Director of WHO’s Health Emergencies Programme.

“There are a number of aspects that all of us across the world are looking at to really better understand [in] this pandemic,” he said.

“The investigations in China may lead to hypotheses, and may lead to the need to make further inquiries or investigations in other countries. We will go anywhere and everywhere to gather more information around the origins and impact of disease,” added Ryan.

Maria Van Kerkhove, WHO COVID-19 Technical Lead, also confirmed that studies into the virus origins also would take place in Wuhan, something which had previously not been confirmed.

She noted that: “The studies that are commencing in Wuhan – especially looking at those initial patients that were first identified in December – are really, really critical to help us better understand the beginning of this pandemic.”

Meanwhile, Dr Tedros said the global body was “pleased that an international team” of scientists and experts from 10 institutions and countries were travelling to China to engage in and review scientific research on the origins of the virus.

“Studies will begin in Wuhan to identify the potential source of infection of the early cases,” said Dr Tedros. “Scientific evidence will drive hypotheses, which will then be the basis for further long term studies. This is important not just for COVID-19, but for the future of global health security and to manage emerging disease threats with pandemic potential.”

Japan Reports New Variant, as WHO Urges Countries to Genome Sequence

Meanwhile, as yet another new COVID-19 variant was identified in Japan over the weekend, WHO called on all member countries to step up their monitoring of virus mutations. The Organization was also at pains to emphasize that the exponential spread of the virus in many countries was related to the relaxation of social distancing over the holiday period, moreso than than to variants.

“What is most critical is that we sequence the virus effectively, so we know how it’s changing, and how to respond,” said Dr Tedros. “While diagnostics and vaccines still seem to be effective against the current virus, we may need to tweak them in the future.” 

WHO released a comprehensive implementation guide and risk monitoring framework last week to help countries set up high impact sequencing programmes.

“We call on all countries to increase the sequencing of the virus to supplement ongoing surveillance monitoring and testing efforts, and to share that data internationally,” Dr Tedros stressed.

He warned that “the transmissibility” of the virus “appears to be increasing” through its variants, which can “drive a surge of cases and hospitalizations, which is highly problematic for health workers and hospitals already close to breaking point”.

However, Ryan stressed that there “is no evidence that variants are driving any element of severity” but “there is some evidence that variants may be increasing, or adding to transmission, and in some sense, giving them some extra transmissibility to the virus.”

“There were increases in transmission in a number of countries before these variants were circulating, and that was due to increases in the mixing of people. There’s no way around that,” added Dr Maria Van Kerkhove, the WHO’s technical lead on COVID-19. “Variants don’t help in situations where they are now circulating, and now are being identified in other countries, that’s going to make it that much harder, but we have tools in our toolbox that help us be able to break chains of transmission.”

Image Credits: Wikipedia/user: 钉钉.

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