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Wuhan, where the new coronavirus was first detected, has largely returned to normal but is on heightened alert against a resurgence. A WHO team is in the city to investigate the origins of Covid-19. Photo: AP

WHO science sleuths set to start Wuhan investigation into Covid-19 origins

  • Quarantine period in China ends on Thursday and team will begin work on the ground looking at earliest known cases
  • Amid doubts over access, one member reportedly says Chinese scientists have been sharing data that was not previously made public
A World Health Organization team will finish a two-week quarantine in China on Thursday, starting work on the ground to investigate the origins of Covid-19 in Wuhan, the city where the disease was first identified in late 2019.

The challenges for the 14-member group of specialists go well beyond science. Their mission has been over six months in the making, taking shape as recriminations flew between Washington and Beijing about where the virus came from.

The WHO has stressed the mission is not about apportioning blame. WHO health emergencies programme director Mike Ryan said on Friday: “All hypotheses are on the table and it is definitely too early to come to a conclusion of exactly where this virus started either within or without China.”

The team, both international experts and WHO officials, will work with Chinese scientists to focus on understanding how the earliest patients may have been infected. They will also look at research around a food wet market linked to early known cases, according to the WHO.


WHO health experts arrive in Covid-19 epicentre Wuhan to investigate origins of coronavirus

WHO health experts arrive in Covid-19 epicentre Wuhan to investigate origins of coronavirus

Doubts have been raised about how much access the team will have to certain locations and the data collected by Chinese scientists. WHO team member Peter Daszak said the Chinese side was sharing data with the team that had not previously been made public, according to US news outlet NBC in a segment aired this week.

“This is a scientific trip, admittedly with a lot of politics and a lot of blame game, but it’s the science that’s taking the lead here,” said Daszak, a disease ecologist who is president of US-based EcoHealth Alliance. “The data don’t lie.”

The WHO has stressed that the mission is not about apportioning blame. Photo: Reuters

But the team’s mandate to follow the evidence comes against a backdrop of several controversial theories about the outbreak.

Some have been amplified by politicians and officials. The former Donald Trump administration said the virus may have leaked from a Wuhan lab. Beijing has said the virus may not have originated in China at all, with some scientists recently suggesting it could have been imported into the country via frozen goods.

Covid-19 scientists seek the invisible in Wuhan investigation into deadly pathogen

WHO team leader Peter Ben Embarek recently said that the team would look at the hypothesis that the virus leaked from a laboratory “even if it’s an unlikely one”.

“There is no evidence so far indicating that anyone was working with this virus in the past, there is no evidence to indicate that it would have escaped the laboratory in any way, but of course we will have that in mind when we look at the origin of this virus,” Ben Embarek said in a WHO video released earlier this month.


Seeking the invisible: hunt for origins of deadly Covid-19 coronavirus will take scientists to Wuhan

Seeking the invisible: hunt for origins of deadly Covid-19 coronavirus will take scientists to Wuhan
Scientists largely agree the virus more likely emerged in nature, not a laboratory. But on January 15 in the final days of the Trump presidency, the US State Department released a memo saying lab workers at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, which studies coronaviruses, fell sick with Covid-19-like symptoms in the autumn of 2019. No evidence has been provided to back the claim.

China’s foreign ministry responded to what it called “conspiracy theory and lies” by calling for an American military laboratory, Fort Detrick, to be investigated instead of the Wuhan lab.

Daszak said on science podcast “Going Viral” last week that the mission’s approach was to trace back the contacts and activities of the first known cases and follow leads from there.

“If that lead takes us to a lab, then we will definitely start inquiring about the labs. If that lead takes us to other parts of China, or even other countries, we’ll follow that,” he said.

Another team member, veterinarian Fabian Leendertz of Germany’s Robert Koch Institute, included the lab in a list of places that it would be important for the team to visit.

“You can’t do an investigation of any outbreak remotely,” he told British newspaper The Guardian in an interview published earlier this month. “It is really important to see the locations and the settings, the wet market in Wuhan, the virology institute, to see the wildlife farms, the potential interface between the virus and humans.”

Scientists believe the virus that causes Covid-19 came from an animal, perhaps a bat, before passing into humans, either directly or via an intermediary animal. So far, the closest known relative to the virus was found in a bat in southeastern China.

Beijing has long maintained that just because the virus was first identified in China, this does not mean that is where it came from. State media reports often reference research indicating the virus may have been spreading overseas before it was identified in Wuhan.

Several prominent Chinese scientists have suggested the virus could have been imported into Wuhan via frozen goods – a controversial theory not widely endorsed by the international scientific community.

Did half a million people in Wuhan contract the coronavirus?

The theories come on the back of a massive campaign in China to test products entering the country, over fears that they are spurring local infections. The WHO says there is currently no evidence of the virus spreading via food or food packaging.

In an interview with China’s state-owned network CGTN released earlier this month, WHO team virologist Marion Koopmans of the Erasmus University Medical Centre in the Netherlands, said the group had discussed the theories of transmission via frozen goods.

“To me that is one of the more puzzling things … given what we know about the virus it is difficult for me to understand how the virus would survive in cold storage certainly for a prolonged period of time on the outside of packages,” she said. “That’s the kind of information we should really dig down deep in … it is important to understand.”

The WHO has also said that it is looking into reports about earlier spread of the virus outside of China, but such observations did not change the validity of starting the mission in Wuhan.

“This is a big jigsaw puzzle and you cannot tell what the image says by looking at one piece in a 10,000-piece jigsaw puzzle,” Ryan said on Friday.

“Let’s step back, let’s follow the evidence, let’s follow the science.”

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: WHO team set to start work