More than a year after a new corona virus was first discovered in China, a team of World Health Organization experts arrived in the central city of Wuhan, on Thursday to begin searching for their resources.
An investigation by a team of 10 scientists is an important step in understanding how the virus spread from animals to humans to prevent another epidemic. Getting answers can be difficult.
The Chinese government has become notorious for external scrutiny, and has repeatedly blocked the team’s arrival and investigation. Even in the best of circumstances, a full inquiry can take months, if not more time. The team will also have to navigate China’s efforts to politicize the investigation.
Here’s what you need to know about the investigation.
China set up barriers and moved forward for control.
Seemingly anxious to draw attention to the country’s early mistakes in dealing with the epidemic, Chinese officials have used various measures over the past year to obstruct the WHO investigation.
After resisting demands from other countries to allow independent investigators to study the origins of the disease on the territory, China finally allowed two WHO experts to visit in July. He then immediately placed the team in quarantine for 14 days, forcing its members to act as some of their spies from afar.
They were not allowed to go to Wuhan, where the virus first appeared.
For months, China delayed approving the visit of a full team of experts, much to the dismay of health agency leaders. When it came to finalizing the tour earlier this month, it split at the last minute when Beijing failed to issue visas to visitors, according to the health agency. The World Health Organization’s director general, Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, issued a rare reprimand from Beijing at a news conference, saying he was “very disappointed” by the delay.
The Chinese government has asked Chinese scientists to monitor key parts of the investigation. It has limited access to key research and data from the International Research Organization. The entire WHO team will have to undergo a two-week quarantine in Wuhan before he can be released.
Critics say overcoming Beijing’s ambitions means the investigation will be more political than political.
“You want this investigation to be thorough, not subject to free and fair politics,” Yanzhong Huang said, a senior World Health Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. “But we have to be realistic.”
Despite the concerns, the WHO says it intends to conduct a rigorous and transparent study.
“The WHO has been committed to investigating the origin of the virus from the outset,” agency spokesman Tarik Jašarević said in a statement. “We call on all countries to support these efforts with openness and transparency.”
Detecting a virus can be a daunting task.
According to state broadcaster CGTN, the team arriving in Wuhan will compete with a city that, after the outbreak of the virus, was completely transformed from a city at the end of 2019. The city, which went into lockdown on January 23 last year, became a symbol of the virus. Chinese officials are facing a catastrophe a year later as a success story in eradicating the virus.
WHO experts have decades of experience in deep plumbing to control viruses, animal health and disease. They come from Britain, Germany, Japan, Russia, the United States and other countries. The team members include Peter Daszak, a British pathologist and Hung Nguyen, a Vietnamese scientist.
But as of Thursday, the source of the virus, which has killed nearly 2 million people worldwide and infected more than 92 million, is yet to be determined. Although experts believe the virus originated naturally in animals, possibly bats, little is known about it.
The team is expected to investigate early cases of the virus in China, possibly from data collected from samples collected in a wet market spread across Wuhan. Game meat and live animals are sold. Many of the previously reported infections were found there.
Public health experts say the team needs to reach out to China.
“We should be able to review all the data collected by the China Center for Disease Control on Outbreaks,” said Raina McIntyre, head of the biosecurity program at the Crab Institute. University of Wales. “It must be done in a comprehensive and transparent manner.”
The health agency did not say how long the inquiry would take, nor did it issue a detailed itinerary for the team’s visit.
The investigation is a “long-term plan,” said Marion Koopmans, a Dutch virologist on the WHO team.
“We will gather all the scientific information that our colleagues in China have already gathered,” he told China’s international broadcaster CGTN in a recent interview. “Are there pieces of information that we have?” Want to add? How can it be?
The team will have to leave behind its efforts to politicize its inquiry.
The epidemic has hurt China’s reputation, with many foreign governments still angry that Beijing did little to overcome the crisis in its early stages. So Chinese propagandists are trying to use the WHO inquiry to strengthen China’s image and present the country as a strong superpower.
“China is open, clean and sincere,” the state-run Xinhua news agency said in a commentary on Wednesday about the investigation.
Even the WHO itself has been attacked by the Trump administration for seemingly turning a blind eye to China’s wishes, even as the United States has come under fire for its ineffective response to epidemics. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo before the team landed Said on Twitter Tuesday: “The WHO was corrupted by Chinese influence, and was bought cheaply. One year after the first case was reported, WHO investigators could not reach Wuhan.
On the same day, the Global Times, a government-sponsored destination, wrote that the pending visit showed that China “played its part in the global fight against epidemics with a committed, responsible attitude and a spirit of respect.” Science has always been dedicated to pay
The Chinese government has tried to advance the baseless notion that the virus has spread outside China. Chinese scientists have suggested without any evidence that packaged food imported from abroad brought the virus to China or that the epidemic could start in India.
Experts say the warmer climate has made it harder for the WHO to conduct independent investigations.
“The biggest concern here is that so much has been politicized since the beginning of the epidemic,” said Mr. Huang, a global health expert. “It really narrowed the space for an independent, objective and scientific investigation for the WHO.”
Albie Zhang and Claire Fu collaborated on the research.