More than a year after a new coronavirus first appeared in China, a team of experts from the World Health Organization finally arrived in the central city of Wuhan on Thursday to begin the hunt for its source.
The investigation by the team of 10 scientists is a critical step in understanding how the virus was transmitted to humans from animals so that another pandemic could be avoided. Getting answers is likely to be difficult.
The Chinese government, extremely careful about outside surveillance, has consistently obstructed the team’s arrival and investigation. Even in the best of circumstances, a thorough investigation can take months, if not longer. The team must also navigate China’s efforts to politicize the investigation.
Here’s what you need to know about the investigation.
China imposed obstacles and pushes for control.
Visa delays. Quarantine rules. Political stoning.
Concerned about drawing new attention to the country’s early mistakes in dealing with the pandemic, Chinese officials have used a variety of tactics over the past year to thwart the WHO investigation.
After resisting requests from other nations to allow independent investigators on its soil to study 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 its members to do some of their detective work from a distance.
They were not allowed to visit Wuhan, where the virus first appeared.
For months, China delayed approving a visit by a full team of experts, disappointing health agency leaders. When the visit seemed completed earlier this month, it broke down at the last minute when Beijing failed to secure visas for visitors, according to the health agency. Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, 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 demanded that Chinese scientists oversee important parts of the investigation. It has limited the access of global health agencies to important research and data. The full WHO team will be required to spend two weeks quarantine in Wuhan before starting to rest.
Critics say Beijing’s desire for control means the investigation is likely to be more political than scientific.
You want this investigation to be complete, without being politicized, independent and transparent, said Yanzhong Huang, a senior member of the global health council at the Foreign Relations Council. But we must be realistic.
Despite the trouble, 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 beginning, Tarik Jaarev, a spokesman for the agency, said in a statement. We urge all countries to support these efforts by demonstrating openness and transparency.
Tracing the virus will be a painstaking task.
The team that arrived in Wuhan, according to the official CGTN broadcaster, will face a city radically transformed since the virus first appeared, in late 2019. The city that went into blockade on January 23 last year and was became a symbol of virus destruction was held by Chinese officials a year later as a success story in defeating the virus a reborn city.
WHO experts have decades of hydraulic experience in the depths of viruses, animal health and disease control. They come from Britain, Germany, Japan, Russia, the United States and other countries. Peter Daszak, a British disease ecologist, and Hung Nguyen, a Vietnamese scientist studying zoonotic diseases, are among the team members.
But tracking down the source of the virus that has killed nearly two million people worldwide and infected more than 92 million since Thursday will be meticulous. While experts believe the virus originated naturally in animals, perhaps bats, little is known.
The team is expected to examine the earliest reported cases of the virus in China, most likely examining data from samples collected at a large wet market in Wuhan that sold game meat and live animals. Many of the first infections reported were traced there.
How much access the team gets in China will be critical, say public health experts.
They should be able to review all data collected by the Chinas Center for Disease Control for outbreaks, including contact tracking, environmental sampling, genetic sequencing and zero patient identification, said Raina MacIntyre, program manager of Biosafety at the Kirby Institute of the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia. It is important to do this comprehensively and transparently.
The health agency has not said how long the investigation will last, nor has it issued a detailed itinerary for team visits.
Marion Koopmans, 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 together and discuss, What does this tell us? she said in a recent interview with CGTN, the Chinese international broadcaster. Is there any information we would like to add? How can this be done?
The team will have to avoid attempts to politicize its investigation.
The pandemic has damaged China’s reputation, with many foreign governments still angry that Beijing did nothing more to contain the crisis in its earliest stages. So Chinese propagandists are trying to use the WHO investigation to help elevate China’s image and portray the country as a mature superpower.
China is open, honest and sincere, said Xinhua, the official news agency, in a COMMENTARY on Wednesday in connection with the investigation.
The WHO itself has also been attacked by the Trump administration for seemingly bowing to China’s will, although the United States has faced criticism for its ineffective response to the pandemic. Before the team landed, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Twitter Tuesday: @WHO was corrupted by China influence and bought cheap. WHO investigators still can not enter Wuhan a year after the first cases were reported?
That same day, the Global Times, a state-run tabloid, wrote that the pending visit showed that China has always been committed to contributing to the global fight against the pandemic with a transparent, accountable attitude and a spirit of respect for science.
The Chinese government has tried to dispel unfounded theories that the virus appeared outside China. Chinese scientists have suggested, without evidence, that food packaged from outside may have brought the virus to China or that the pandemic may have started in India.
The hot political climate will make it difficult for the WHO to conduct an independent investigation, experts say.
The main concern here is the origin of the explosion has been so politicized, said Mr Huang, global health expert. This has really narrowed the space for the WHO to have an independent, objective and scientific investigation.
Albee Zhang and Claire Fu contributed to the research.
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