World Health Organization Will Send Scoping Mission To China To Investigate COVID-19 Origins
Dr Tedros at a June 2020 press briefing

The World Health Organization will be sending a mission to China on 6 July to investigate the origins of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, WHO Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus subtly announced at a Monday press briefing.

The mission aims to fulfill decisions made in a unanimously passed World Health Assembly resolution in late May, which requested WHO work with World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE), the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and countries to “identify the zoonotic source of the virus and the route of introduction to the human population, including the possible role of intermediate hosts.”

“We will send a team next week to China to prepare this and hopefully it will lead to a better understanding of how the virus started and what we can do in the future to prepare for it,” said Dr Tedros on Monday, in response to a query from a Brussel Times journalist following-up on the status of actions outlined in the resolution.

Two WHO experts will be sent on the initial scoping mission; an expert in animal health and an epidemiology expert with a background in investigating epidemics in the field, WHO Health Emergencies Executive Director Mike Ryan added on Wednesday.

While researchers largely believe that the virus jumped the animal-human barrier at a wet market in Wuhan, China, some have posited that the virus may have escaped from a high level virology lab within miles of the first cluster of confirmed cases.

The quiet announcement underlines the political tensions surrounding the investigation of origins of the virus, with WHO caught in an ongoing feud between China and the United States.

United States President Donald Trump has repeatedly slammed the World Health Organization for supposedly catering to China’s favor and delaying global responses to the pandemic, despite once praising the WHO and China response before COVID-19 reached US shores. Trump has made WHO’s supposed deference to China the main point of contention for withdrawing US support from the agency, even as the US continues to face an accelerating pandemic at home, reporting the highest numbers of new cases and hospitalizations daily.

But WHO has little authority over Member States’ actions, and must balance criticising pandemic responses with retaining access to data and knowledge.

The first WHO mission to China was delicately arranged at the end of January, after Chinese authorities locked down the Wuhan, a city of 11 million people, following a spike in cases due to a delayed response in early January. Since largely coming out of lockdown in May, the outbreak in China has been tightly controlled. However, new clusters of cases in Jilin province, Wuhan city, and the capital of Beijing have sparked great unease and second rounds of lockdowns.