WHO Plans to To Send International Team To China In January To Investigate Origins Of SARS-CoV-2 Virus
Fresh seafood market in Wuhan, China. Some of the fhe first SARS-CoV-2 virus clusters emerged around the market, but its now unclear if the virus first lept from animals in the market to humans, or the market was merely an “amplifier” for an infection that came from elsewhere.

Following months of delay, and delicate backdoor negotiations, WHO now says that it “hopes” an international team has been mandated by the World Health Assembly to investigate the sources of the SARS-CoV2 virus can travel to China in January to begin their fieldwork.  

“The International team is currently working on logistical arrangements to travel to China as soon as possible. We hope the team will be able to travel in January,” a spokesperson at WHO told Health Policy Watch on Wednesday in response to a query.  

While the investigation was mandated by the WHA in May, China has delayed for months the visit to “ground zero” in the virus emergence in Wuhan China.  And even now in the WHO press announcement, Wuhan was not specifically mentioned as a place that the team would visit.

“It’s really not about finding a guilty country,” said Fabian Leendertz, a biologist on the team of ten that would be traveling to China. “It’s about trying to understand what happened and then see if, based on those data, we can try to reduce the risk in the future.” 

Dr Leendertz said the aim of the mission, expected to last four to five weeks, is to find out when the virus began circulating and whether or not it originated from Wuhan.

In the early days of the virus emergence, a Wuhan seafood market was believed to have been the place where the virus first lept from an animal source, to humans.  Wuhan’s live animal market, like many others across China, sold cats, pangolins and other species that could have been infected, acting as an intermediate host for the virus – which comes from a family of coronaviruses believed to have been circulating naturally in bat populations living in another region of the country, hundreds of miles away. 

However, it was later discovered that a number of Wuhan’s first cases had occurred in people who had no known contact with the live animal market.

That has led to speculation that the market was merely an “amplifier” for the infection that began somewhere else.  Some reports have also suggested that it was the result of a biosecurity accident at a Wuhan virology lab – and that the virus – while of natural origins – escaped from the lab while it was being researched there. 

US State Department cables, which were made public in the spring, suggested that the US embassy had been worried about biosecurity at the laboratory. While intelligence officials discounted the theory that the virus had been man-made or genetically modified, they had investigated the possibility that the virus had escaped from the lab, or infected laboratory workers in contact with animals housed at the laboratory.

China has released no details about the research underway at the laboratory,  and few details about the wild market, which sold seafood and vegetables, as well as varieties of wild animals.  The lack of transparency, along with rigid state censorship of Chinese research and the tightly controlled nature of visits by foreigners, raise doubts about how much evidence the WHO investigative team will really be able to collect- once it finally hits the ground. 

Chinese government media have also recently attempted to suggest that the coronavirus may have originated from a source outside of China – including in Italy – where surveys of blood samples found evidence of infections as far back as September.

At a recent WHO press conference, state controlled Chinese media tried to suggest that alternative narrative in questions posed to WHO’s Executive Director of Health Emergencies, Mike Ryan and WHO Director General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. 

But that narrative has been dismissed by most experts. As Ryan pointed out in his reply, the SARS-CoV2 virus, which belongs to a family of coronaviruses that circulates naturally in Chinese bat populations, has no known animal host or source in Europe. 

“I think it’s highly speculative for us to say that the disease did not emerge in China. What we do know is the first clusters of human cases that were detected, were in Wuhan and China, there was a massive response to containing that disease there,” said Ryan.  “It is clear from a public health perspective that you start your investigation from the place where the cases first emerge,” he added, recalling that it was Chinese clinicians who had first picked up the cluster of acute pneumonia cases in the city of 10 million people.

In addition, there is also concrete evidence that the virus was circulating in Wuhan as early as August 2019 – with the first cases on record reported by Chinese doctors in September.

In light of the very extensive network of Italy-China business and tourism connections; the infections circulating Italy in the autumn of 2019 likely resulted from the tourism or business traffic back and forth between the two countries – but simply passed under the radar until China finally acknowledged, and reported to WHO, about the first infection cluster of the virus in Wuhan in January 2020.  

Analysts say the Chinese media attempts to sow reports about a foreign source for the virus origins reports not only are without foundation, they are damaging to the country’s international reputation to portray itself as an honest broker in its management of the pandemic. Ditto for the delays that have been seen in China’s approval for the investigative team visit. 

As Lawrence Gostin, director of the O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law at Georgetown University told the South China Morning Post “rapid and full access to the market” could have helped in the fight against the outbreak.

“China has done many things right with the Covid-19 response,” he said. “But its failure to allow a full and independent investigation into the origins of the outbreak was a major failure of transparency and international cooperation.”

See our recent Health Policy Watch on the debates over the virus origins here.

Image Credits: Arend Kuester/Flickr.

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