WHO China Team Visits Lab at Centre of Conspiracies, Fieldwork Proving To Be “Extremely Useful”
The WHO team arriving at the Wuhan Institute of Virology on Wednesday.

The World Health Organization’s (WHO) investigative team in Wuhan, China, visited the biosafety laboratory that has been at the centre of numerous conspiracy theories about the COVID-19 pandemic on Wednesday, making it the most controversial site for the team’s fieldwork so far. 

The team of 13 experts spent three-and-a-half hours at the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV), one of China’s top virus research labs and the only one in mainland China with a Biosafety Level 4, the highest level of biocontainment. 

Visiting the lab that has an archive of genetic data on coronaviruses and bats, which are presumed reservoirs of coronaviruses, is an important part of the investigation into the origins of SARS-CoV2, the virus behind the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“Very interesting. Many questions,” said Thea Fischer, a Danish team member, as the group was leaving the site, responding to a question about whether the team had found anything. 

“Extremely important meeting today with staff at WIV, including Dr Shi Zhengli. Frank, open discussion. Key questions asked & answered,” said Peter Daszak, the British team member, zoologist, and president of EcoHealth Alliance, on Twitter

Dr Shi Zhengli is the director of the Center for Emerging Infectious Diseases at the Institute, and a well known virologist who specialises in bat-borne coronaviruses. The lab’s investigation into zoonotic viruses prompted speculations that deadly pathogens either escaped from, or were created in, the lab. 

Former US President Donald Trump was among those pushing these unfounded theories, claiming that he had seen evidence that gave him a “high degree of confidence that the Wuhan Institute of Virology was the origin of this virus”.

“We’ve said from the beginning that this was a virus that originated in Wuhan, China,” said former US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in an interview with ABC News in early May. “China has a history of infecting the world and they have a history of running sub-standard laboratories… I can tell you that there is a significant amount of evidence that this came from that laboratory in Wuhan.”

Several leading infectious disease experts, including WHO officials and Shi – who found that none of the viruses sampled in the lab matched the viral genome sequences of the SARS-CoV2 samples – refuted these conspiracy theories. 

Experts from the US, United Kingdom and Australia concluded that “SARS-CoV2 is not a laboratory construct or a purposefully manipulated virus” in a study published in the Nature Medicine journal in March 2020. 

Dr Peter Daszak, member of WHO’s investigative team in Wuhan and zoologist.

“I know that lab really well,” said Daszak, speaking from his experience working with Shi to investigate the origins of the SARS 2003 outbreak. “It is a good virology lab that was doing good work that got close to finding what the next SARS-related coronavirus would be. But it didn’t find it as far as I know. But you know, unfortunately, it maybe got so close that people now ironically start to blame it.”

In response to suspicions that WIV was the source of the virus, the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson, Wang Wenbin, stressed that “the pandemic shall not be exploited to stigmatize others… We hope that like China, all parties will adopt a positive and science-based attitude towards close cooperation with WHO.” 

Despite China’s claims of avoiding the politicization of origin research, Chinese officials have continued to suggest that the virus originated elsewhere. 

More and more clues, reports and studies have indicated that the infections broke out in multiple places in the world in the latter half of the year 2019,” said Wang Wenbin at a press briefing on Tuesday. 

Wang Wenbin, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson, at a press briefing on Tuesday.

“According to a US CDC report, COVID-19 antibodies were detected in blood donations collected in December 2019, which means that the virus may have already been spreading in the United States by then, earlier than January 21 when the first official confirmed COVID-19 case was reported in the country.”

The WHO team has not ruled out any possibilities and is reportedly looking into “all the key aspects of the Wuhan Institute of Virology,” as well as the possibility that the virus could have been circulating before it was identified in Wuhan. 

“If there are data that point towards any hypothesis, we’ll follow the data, we’ll follow the evidence where it leads us,” said Daszak in an interview on Tuesday with Sky News. “Everything’s on the table and we’re keeping an open mind.”

The WHO Mission is Collecting a “Wealth of Data”

With the world watching and governments politicizing WHO’s origin mission, the team has reported that it is getting valuable data from its consultations with its Chinese counterparts and from its week of fieldwork in Wuhan. 

“[Chinese scientists] are sharing data with us that we have not seen before, that no one has seen before. They are talking with us openly about every possible pathway,” Daszak told Sky News. “We are really getting somewhere.” 

The site visits, particularly to the Huanan market, are “beginning to help us look at the right directions for this virus,” according to Daszak.  

The market, where a cluster of COVID-19 cases were first detected in late 2019, has been heavily disinfected and shut down for nearly a year. Despite the time that has passed, team members expressed the value of visiting the site that has long been considered the potential origin of the outbreak. 

Wuhan’s Huanan seafood market that has been closed since early 2020. The WHO team visited the market on Sunday.

“Even if the place had been to some extent disinfected, all the shops are there – and the equipment is there. It gives you a good idea of the state of the market in terms of maintenance, infrastructure, hygiene and flows of goods and people,” Peter Ben Embarek, leader of the WHO team and a food safety specialist, told CNN

“It’s clear that something happened in that market. But it could also be that other places had the same role, and that one was just picked because some doctors were clever enough to link a few sporadic cases together,” he added. 

Team Needs to Explore Bat Caves To Trace Virus Origins

The next crucial step in the investigation is finding the “true wildlife origin” of SARS-CoV2, which will consist of tracing the genetic sequences of the virus in bat caves. Coronaviruses, including the 2003 outbreak of the SARS virus, have previously been linked to bats in caves in the southwest province of Yunnan. 

“The real work we are doing here is to trace back from the first cases back to an animal reservoir, and that’s a much more convoluted path, and may have happened over a number of months or even years,” Daszak told Reuters. 

Once the sources of the virus can be found, contact with the animal can be reduced. 

The team members are starting to see a “picture coming through of some of the scenarios looking more plausible than before,” said Daszak, although they continue to caution that the investigation will likely take a considerable amount of time.

The mission will result in a report, produced by the international team members and the Chinese team members, that will be based on the activities of the investigation, an analysis of the data gathered, and the findings of the early studies conducted.

“[The report] needs to be done by the scientists who are in the field…There are a number of studies that will be done and we will have some results but that’s just the start,” said Maria Van Kerkhove, WHO COVID-19 Technical Lead, at a WHO press briefing on Friday. “The report itself will not provide all of the answers, it was never intended to because that’s just not possible, but it will provide a summary.”

Even if the origin is eventually discovered after several studies and missions, COVID-19 has become endemic and “will be with us forever,” warned Daszak. 

“But we’ll come to terms with it. We’ll have a vaccine that works and [if] we get an escape variant, we’ll modify the vaccine,” he added. 

Image Credits: CNN, Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People's Republic of China, Deutsche Welle.

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