WHO Plays Down China ‘Origins’ Research Expectations
The WHO visiting Wuhan’s Huanan seafood market on January 31, 2021, as part of their investigations into the origins of COVID-19.

As the World Health Organization (WHO) led expert team on the origins of the SARS-CoV-2 virus began to conduct fieldwork at hospitals, research centers and markets in Wuhan, China, the WHO attempted to curb expectations, insisting that the mission will likely raise more questions. 

“The plans and the visits that they have, provide detailed information…The more detail you have on the ground, the more questions you have,” said Dr Maria Van Kerkhove, WHO COVID-19 Technical Lead, at the body’s press conference on Monday. 

While the origin study may lead to a greater understanding about which hypotheses hold more weight, several experts have highlighted that previous investigations into the origins of outbreaks have taken years before being able to make any pronouncements. As a result, it is highly unlikely that the team will discover the exact origins after one mission. 

Additionally, after well over a year since the detection of SARS-CoV-2, a significant proportion of physical evidence will be gone, adding to the challenge of finding firm answers or conclusions. 

“We’re keeping completely open minded on all possible hypotheses,” said Dr Peter Daszak, a British zoologist and member of the team. “Where does the evidence seem to be pointing? Was the Huanan seafood market truly the origin of COVID? What was the first case ever at that market? Or is there evidence that it was circulating for longer? Is there evidence that animals were involved?

“These sorts of things we will be able to answer – as well as hopefully, more on the lab hypothesis too, depending on where the evidence takes us. So basically, I think that’s where we should expect to get to.”

International Team Commence Fieldwork on Origin Investigation

The 13-person team spent two weeks communicating and coordinating with their Chinese counterparts virtually while in quarantine in the country before commencing the fieldwork component of their fact-finding mission into the origins of the virus that caused the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Yesterday, the WHO-led team visited Huanan market, the seafood market linked to the initial clusters of SARS-CoV2 cases. The market was shut down at the beginning of last year and access has been restricted to the site ever since its closure. 

Wuhan’s Huanan seafood market that has been closed since early 2020 after a cluster of COVID-19 cases were detected.

Heavy security presence surrounded the market during the hour-long site visit and journalists were kept at a distance from the team. 

“Very important site visits today – a wholesale market first & Huanan Seafood Market just now. Very informative & critical for our joint teams to understand the epidemiology of COVID as it started to spread at the end of 2019,” wrote Dr Daszak on Twitter

The full itinerary for the team’s fieldwork has not yet been released, but they will reportedly conclude their visit in mid-February. The Chinese authorities have been responsible for organizing access to sites and conversations with experts, as well as restricting contact with the broader community. 

“The team will go out but they will be bussed to wherever, so they won’t have any contact with the community. They will only have contact with various individuals that are being organized as part of the study,” said Margaret Harris, WHO spokesperson, at a press briefing on Friday. 

However, according to Dr Daszak’s interview with the Telegraph, the team has gained “access to all the places we want to visit” and discussions have not been censored or “vetted.”

“It is important to remember that the success of this mission and origin-tracing is 100% depending on access to the relevant sources. No matter how competent we are, how hard we work and how many stones we try to turn, this can only be possible with the support from China,” said Professor Thea Fischer, a virologist and Danish team member, in an interview with Reuters on Thursday. 

On Friday, the team visited the Hubei Provincial Hospital of Integrated Chinese and Western Medicine, where some of the first COVID-19 patients were treated over a year ago, and spoke with healthcare professionals who were involved in the initial response in Wuhan. 

The director of the hospital’s department of respiratory and critical care, Dr Zhang Jixian, is considered by state media to be the first doctor to detect and alert the health system to the novel SARS-CoV-2.

Dr Dasnak described the visit on Twitter as: “Extremely important 1st site visit. We are in the hospital that treated some of the first known cases of COVID-19, meeting with the actual clinicians & staff who did this work, having open discussion about the details of their work.” 

The following day, the team toured an exhibition on Wuhan’s battle with COVID-19 and its 76-day lockdown, celebrating China’s response to the outbreak. 

Later, they visited the Jinyintan Hospital where samples had been collected from patients infected with a mysterious pneumonia in late 2019. Discussions with the researchers and staff revealed “stories quite similar to what I have heard from our ICU doctors,” said Dr Marion Koopmans, a Dutch virologist and team member, on Twitter

Most recently, the team spent four and a half hours, the longest site visit so far, at the provincial Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) located in Hubei, where the COVID-19 outbreak was detected in December 2019. 

WHO Calls for International Community to Allow Origin Mission to Continue Unhindered

The Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson, Zhao Lijian, conveyed on multiple occasions in press briefings last week that the WHO mission must be science-based and attempts to politicize their activities or the data gathered should be avoided. 

“Origin-tracing is an ongoing process that may involve many countries and places where the epidemic broke out. Origin-tracing is a complex scientific matter that requires international research and cooperation by scientists across the globe,” said Zhao Lijian. 

Zhao Lijian, China’s Foreign Ministry Spokesperson, at a press conference on January 29.

“The WHO experts’ fieldwork itinerary and plan for exchanges are crucial to serious, prudent scientific studies…I’d like to stress that the exchanges and cooperation on origin-tracing between WHO experts and Chinese professionals are part of a global study, not an investigation,” he added

Despite China’s message of collaboration with WHO in an “open, transparent and responsible spirit,” US officials have continued to call the nation out for a lack of transparency.

“Even today, China is falling far short of the mark [in being open about COVID-19],” said new US Secretary of State Antony Blinken in an interview with NBC on Monday. 

“We hope the US side will work with China, take on a responsible attitude and respect facts, science and the diligent work of WHO experts, so that they can conduct research on origin-tracing free from any political disturbance,” said Zhao Lijian, in response to the comments from the US. 

Amid the politicized debate between the US and China, WHO officials have called out countries and individuals for claiming that they won’t accept the report resulting from the WHO mission in Wuhan before it has even been written. 

“I think we need to recognize that at the moment, the international community, not WHO, but the international community, under the World Health Assembly of 194 countries, has a team in the field…It deserves the support of the international community and it deserves to be able to finish its work,” said Ryan. 

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

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