After repeated delays and months of torturous negotiations, a team from the World Health Organization (WHO) will finally land in China today to conduct its long-awaited investigation into the origins of the coronavirus pandemic.
The experts leading the investigation face not only a complex scientific task, but also a daunting political and diplomatic challenge.
The debate over where and how COVID-19 began has been inexorably drawn into the escalating geopolitical battle between the United States and China and poisoned by disinformation campaigns.
And conducting a lucid and rigorous study of the pandemic, more than a year after the appearance of the virus, and under the auspices of an increasingly authoritarian and controlling Chinese state, will not be easy.
How did it all start?
The first calls for an investigation began almost as soon as COVID-19 began to spread rapidly around the world, with Australia being one of the first countries to express a desire to investigate.
Foreign Minister Marise Payne drew a furious reaction from China when she called for an independent investigation into the origin of the virus.
Beijing was furious, accusing Australia of trying to smear the Chinese government at the behest of the United States.
The dispute launched a frenzied campaign of international diplomacy and negotiation ahead of a pivotal World Health Assembly meeting in May.
Ultimately, 137 countries, including Australia and China, backed a European Union-led motion calling for a “full, independent and impartial” investigation into the start of the pandemic and the international health response.
Australia has claimed this as justification, prompting a response of anger and contempt from the Chinese Embassy in Canberra.
Since then, bilateral relations have been on a downward spiral, with Beijing imposing trade sanctions on a growing list of Australian exports, including coal, barley, timber and wine.
Tensions between the two countries predate the fight over the COVID-19 investigation and cover strategic, technological and ideological grounds.
But the dispute over the investigation fueled the fire, igniting institutional hostility towards Australia in Beijing and precipitating direct confrontation.
What has happened since?
WHO has continued to advance the investigation.
But progress has been extremely slow.
The organization established an independent assessment panel co-chaired by former New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark and former Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf to study the outbreak and the initial global response.
WHO has also advanced a scientific study on the origins of COVID-19, led by a team of international experts from top universities and research institutes around the world.
It includes Australian microbiologist Dominic Dwyer, from Westmead Hospital in Sydney.
This is the team that will land in China this morning.
Entering the country was not easy. Negotiations between the WHO and the Chinese authorities have already dragged on for months.
Scientists were due to travel to China earlier this month only to suddenly find at the last minute that their visas had not been approved.
It drew a rare flash of public frustration from WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, who said two of the team members had already boarded planes before they suddenly found themselves stranded from the country. .
“I once again specified [to China] that the mission is a priority for the WHO and the international team, ”he told reporters.
Chinese officials responded with a bland statement saying they were still working on “necessary procedures” for the visit and said officials were still concerned about several small outbreaks of COVID-19 in China.
Everything is political
The long battle to simply enter China shows just how sensitive Beijing is to the investigation and the tense political environment in which the team will operate.
While the WHO has publicly praised China’s response to the virus, it is increasingly evident that Chinese authorities have withheld vital information about the outbreak during the critical first days of the pandemic.
The United States has repeatedly rebuked China for its handling of the initial outbreak in Wuhan, with the Trump administration saying Chinese authorities must bear the blame for the global devastation caused by COVID-19.
Senior U.S. officials have also publicly speculated that COVID-19 likely originated from the Wuhan Institute of Virology, a theory that has been rejected by most experts.
In this climate, China has become even more determined to suppress any information that could damage its reputation.
He has invested heavily in research to determine the origins of the virus, but he is also monitoring their findings closely and has ordered scientists not to publish anything without the express permission of the country’s top management.
At the same time, Chinese state media have been peddling fringe theories suggesting the virus may have originated in India or northern Italy instead of China.
Members of the WHO team said they were promised full access to scientists and facilities in China in order to carry out their work.
But even if that access is granted, negotiating those political sensitivities while pushing relentlessly for the information and data they need will take skillful footwork.
What will the team do?
The team will spend the first two weeks working in quarantine, before spending around two more weeks in the field, including in Wuhan where the first major outbreak occurred.
Experts will likely spend some time evaluating research that has already been carried out by Chinese scientists investigating the pandemic.
This will allow WHO experts to determine precisely what data is already available and what further research will be needed to try to determine the source.
One of the team, Dutch expert Marion Koopmans, told Chinese television station CGTN that this would allow scientists to conduct a “mapping exercise” to establish what research still needs to be done to go to the bottom of the mystery.
Then it comes to determining how and when this investigative work can be done.
The most common theory is still that COVID-19 was carried by bats and then passed to humans by another animal, possibly a species sold in a wet market for wildlife.
But the long delay between the initial outbreak and this trip will likely make it much more difficult for scientists to identify the very first case.
WHO officials are downplaying the likelihood that they will be able to quickly determine the precise source and have hinted that further trips to China may be needed in the future.
Will they come back?
Of course, if the WHO team wants to return, they will have to get the green light from the Chinese authorities again.
This is another reason the organization has been so keen to avoid angering the Chinese government and distancing itself from the geopolitical uproar caused by the disease.
Some of the scientists on the team also gave interviews to the media, stressing that they are only focused on conducting a scientifically rigorous investigation and have no interest in getting caught up in political conflicts.
“I don’t think it’s about blaming China,” Ms. Koopmans said.
“It’s about understanding and learning for the future of our global readiness.”
It is a laudable goal.
But magically disentangling the empirical from the political in the current political era and in Xi Jinping’s China could go beyond even the miracle workers of modern science.
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