Despite WHO report on origin of coronavirus, more probe need in China
By Juan Carlos | March 7th 2021
The hunt for the origins of the Covid-19 pandemic is ongoing after the World Health Organisation (WHO) team’s visit to China produced no answers to key questions about how and where the coronavirus started. The WHO team concluded that the coronavirus that causes Covid-19 is unlikely to have leaked from a Chinese lab and is more likely to have jumped to humans from an animal. The team summarized their month-long investigations at a press briefing on February 9, 2021, in Wuhan, China.
In December 2019, the first cases of the coronavirus were reported as ‘viral pneumonia’ in Wuhan. The team, however, discounted the widely believed theory that the virus accidentally leaked from a laboratory in China. They showed that SARS-CoV-2 probably first passed to people from an animal.
The WHO team has taken on board two hypotheses promoted by the Chinese government and media is objectionable making the impartiality of the report questionable. China has floated the possibility of the virus, having come from an animal outside China, and that once it circulated among people, it could have spread on frozen wildlife and other cold packaged goods.
When the virus began last year, allegations abounded that the Wuhan Institute of Virology in central China, which collected extensive virus samples, may have caused the original outbreak by leaking (perhaps accidentally or deliberately) the virus into the surrounding community. China had strongly rejected that possibility. The WHO team said during the press conference in Beijing that the accidental laboratory hypothesis was unlikely to explain how the virus was introduced to the human population and showed this would be suggested as an area for future study.
The WHO team concludes rather bureaucratically: “Our initial findings suggest that the introduction through an intermediary host species is the most likely pathway and one that will require more studies and more specific targeted research,” and obfuscating the fact that the virus was first spotted in China and the only thing to be investigated is its origins there. Experts from 10 countries, had arrived in China from Singapore on January 14 and media reports showed that the Chinese government had put limits on the research into the outbreak and prevented the WHO scientists from speaking to reporters.
The WHO team’s mission is an initial step into tracing the origins of the virus, which could have originated in bats before being passed to humans through another species of wild animals like the pangolin or bamboo rat.
Doubts, however, still linger after Chinese state media and scientists emphasized the theory that Covid-19 first arrived in Wuhan through imported frozen food–an attempt to bolster Beijing’s claim that the virus did not originate from China after all.
The fact that China resisted the visit by the team from WHO only to yield to international pressure and months-long negotiations also raises questions.
Another doubt is due to mixed reactions to the findings by the WHO team with some opining that the initial findings are only the tip of the iceberg as two weeks is too short a period to draw definitive conclusions. What is certain though is that this will lay the groundwork for a longer investigation in collaboration with the Chinese government. Such collaboration can only be successful if the Chinese government provides full transparency. One of the major reasons for the WHO team coming to inconclusive results was the failure by China to share complete data. The WHO team had requested raw patient data from the earliest cases, but the team only received a summary. The US has urged China to make data from the earliest stages of the outbreak, saying it has "deep concerns" about the WHO report.
Much of the investigations were centred on the early days of the outbreak in Wuhan and the timing of the city’s first infections. The team was given access to the health records in Wuhan and surrounding Hubei province from the second half of 2019, looking for unusual fluctuations in influenza-like illnesses and severe respiratory infections, pharmacy purchases for cold and cough medications, and deaths specifically related to pneumonia. The team also retrospectively tested some 4,500 patient samples for SARS-CoV-2 viral RNA, and analysed blood samples for antibodies against the virus. They found no evidence that the virus was circulating in the city before December 2019. The point is that to assess properly whether the virus arrived earlier; it is necessary to track what was happening in the wider community, not just in health facilities.
The WHO team said investigations in Wuhan and nearby areas should continue, to trace the earliest cases, which would help in understanding how the pandemic started. It also recommended analysing older samples from blood banks in the province and other areas of interest, including using antibody tests that could turn up traces of infection. Clearly, more studies are needed to improve our understanding of the role of frozen wildlife in viral transmission and of whether it can infect people through this route. If the aim is to trace the earliest instances of the virus in Wuhan, then the next logical step should be to trace the origins of this locally and not take on the Chinese theory of the virus having been imported from overseas.
Given this situation, the chances of a deeper and fuller investigation will depend a great deal on the new US administration’s geo-political interest in pursuing the WHO report to its logical conclusion. By itself, the visit by the WHO team to China is a consequence of global pressure, but the inconclusive WHO report could derail follow-up action. Lack of data is obviously a factor in this situation, but the larger picture of China’s control over the WHO cannot and should not be lost sight of!
Juan Carlos is an international affairs/ geopolitics analyst
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