More than a year after a new coronavirus appeared in China, a team of World Health Organization experts finally arrived in central Wuhan on Thursday to begin the hunt for its source.
The investigation by a team of 10 scientists is a critical step in understanding how the virus jumped on humans from animals to avoid another pandemic. Getting answers is likely to be difficult.
The Chinese government, known for its fears of external scrutiny, has repeatedly blocked the team’s arrival – and the investigation. Even in the best of circumstances, a full investigation can take months, if not longer. The team must also focus on China̵
Here’s what you need to know about the investigation.
China created obstacles and insisted on control.
Visa delay. Quarantine rules. Political walls.
Concerned about drawing renewed attention to the country’s early mistakes in tackling the pandemic, Chinese officials have used various tactics over the past year to thwart the WHO investigation.
Opposing requests from other countries to allow independent researchers on its soil to investigate the origin of the pathogen, China finally allowed two WHO experts to visit in July to lay the groundwork. He then immediately quarantined the team for 14 days, forcing his members to do some of their remote detective work.
They were not allowed to visit Wuhan, where the virus first appeared.
For months, China has delayed approving a visit by a full team of experts, much to the chagrin of health agency executives. When the visit appeared to have ended earlier this month, it fell apart at the last minute when Beijing failed to issue visas to visitors, according to the health agency. Dr. Tedros Adhanom Gebreesus, director general of the World Health Organization, issued a rare reprimand to Beijing at a news conference, saying he was “very disappointed” by the delays.
The Chinese government has asked Chinese scientists to monitor important parts of the investigation. It has limited the World Health Agency’s access to important research and data. The full WHO team will have to go through a two-week quarantine in Wuhan before they can start doing so.
Critics say Beijing’s desire for control means the investigation is likely to be more political than scientific.
“You want this investigation to be thorough, non-politicized, independent and transparent,” said Yangzhong Huang, a senior global health associate at the Council on Foreign Relations. “But we have to be realistic.”
Despite the problems, the WHO says it intends to conduct a rigorous and transparent study.
“The WHO is committed to investigating the origin of the virus from the outset,” Tariq Jasarevic, a spokesman for the agency, said in a statement. “We ask all countries to support these efforts by demonstrating openness and transparency.”
Tracking the virus will be a difficult task.
The team, which arrived in Wuhan, according to the official operator CGTN, will face a city radically transformed since the virus first appeared, in late 2019. The city, which was blocked on January 23 last year and became as a symbol of the virus, the devastation was detained by Chinese authorities a year later as a success story in destroying the virus – a city reborn.
WHO experts have decades of experience in water supply to the depths of viruses, animal health and disease control. They come from Britain, Germany, Japan, Russia, the United States and other countries. Peter Dasak, a British disease ecologist, and Hung Nguyen, a Vietnamese scientist who studies zoonotic diseases, are among the team members.
But tracking the source of the virus, which killed nearly two million people worldwide and infected more than 92 million as of Thursday, will be time consuming. While experts believe the virus originated naturally from animals, possibly bats, little is known.
The team is expected to investigate the earliest reported cases of the virus in China, most likely to examine data from samples collected at a sprawling wet market in Wuhan, which sells game meat and live animals. Many of the first reported infections have been traced there.
The team’s access to China will be crucial, public health experts say.
They should be able to review all data collected by the Chinese Outbreak Disease Control Center, “including contact tracking, environmental sampling, genetic sequencing and patient zero identification,” said Raina McIntyre, program manager. for Biosafety at the Kirby Institute at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia. “It’s important to do this comprehensively and transparently.”
The health agency did not say how long the investigation would take, nor did it publish a detailed route for the team’s visit.
Marion Kupmans, a Dutch virologist on the WHO team, said the investigation was a “long-term project”.
“We will gather all the scientific information that has already been gathered by our colleagues in China and discuss’ What does this tell us? She said in a recent interview with CGTN, the Chinese international operator. “Is there any information we would like to add?” How can this be done? “
The team will have to circumvent attempts to politicize its investigation.
The pandemic has damaged China’s reputation, with many foreign governments still angry that Beijing has done more to tackle the crisis in its earliest stages. So Chinese propagandists are trying to use the WHO investigation to strengthen China’s image and portray the country as a mature superpower.
“China is open, frank and sincere,” Xinhua, the official agency, said in a comment Wednesday on the investigation.
The WHO itself has also been attacked by the Trump administration to appear to adhere to China’s will, although the United States has been criticized for its ineffective response to the pandemic. Before the team landed, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Twitter on Tuesday: “@WHO was corrupt by Chinese influence and was bought cheaply. WHO investigators still do not have access to Wuhan – a year after the first cases were reported? “
The same day, the Global Times, a state-run tabloid, reported that the upcoming visit showed that China “has always been committed to the global fight against the pandemic with a transparent, responsible attitude and a spirit of respect for science.” “
The Chinese government has tried to push unsubstantiated theories that the virus originated outside China. Chinese scientists have suggested, without evidence, that packaged food from abroad may have brought the virus to China or that the pandemic may have started in India.
The heated political climate will make it difficult for the WHO to conduct an independent investigation, experts say.
“The main concern here is that the origin of the outbreak is so politicized,” said Mr Huang, a global health expert. “This has really narrowed the scope for the WHO to conduct an independent, objective and scientific investigation.”
Albee Zhang and Claire Fu contributed to the research.