THE World Health Organization’s scientific mission to explore the origins of the coronavirus has only been under way for a few days, but has already been the subject of clashes between the US and China over the investigation’s access to people and evidence.
The first of the 13 scientists arrived in Wuhan on 14 January, after visa issues delayed an original 5 January start date.
Led by Peter Ben Embarek at the WHO, the team is currently in quarantine for 14 days in a hotel and talking with Chinese officials, including those at the Chinese Centre for Disease Control.
Members of the mission have said they are having daily covid-19 tests and are being “treated very well”.
The polite language contrasts with the verbal sparring between the US and Chinese governments in recent days.
The US state department claimed last weekend that it had reason to believe several staff at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, which has been the subject of debunked claims it was the source of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, had covid-19-like symptoms in autumn 2019.
The US government later called on China to give the WHO team access to samples from the Huanan wildlife market that might have had a role in the outbreak of the virus, as well as to allow interviews with caregivers, former patients and lab workers in Wuhan.
China issued a rebuke on Monday, with Reuters reporting that Sun Yang of the China National Health Commission told the board of the WHO: “The virus origin studies are of a scientific nature. It needs coordination, cooperation. We must stop any political pressure.”
Such interventions from the US won’t assist the scientific mission, says David Heymann at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine. “I don’t think that’s helpful at all. They [the WHO team] are the ones that should be making the decisions, and China is a sovereign country.”
“The polite language of the WHO team contrasts with the verbal sparring between the US and China”
Although the WHO team is currently quarantined, on its release Heymann says one of the most important things it can achieve is to form good face-to face relationships with Chinese scientists and officials, to lay out a research agenda for the future. That is the first step to stopping future pandemics, he says.
The mission will probably struggle to pinpoint the origins of the coronavirus, a goal that may never be achieved, says Heymann. “I think it’s very difficult to find an animal source of an outbreak like this. It just takes one [spillover] event. Looking for that single event is like looking for a needle in a haystack,” he adds.
The WHO has also acknowledged the scale of the challenge. Michael Ryan at the WHO, speaking at a press conference on 15 January, said: “It is a difficult task to fully establish the origins. Sometimes it can take two or three or four attempts.”
The investigation into the genesis of the pandemic comes as China battles with a renewed outbreak of covid-19 cases, with clusters in the province of Hebei. The country has recorded more than 200 daily cases in recent days.
The spike, while minor compared with some of the increases seen in Europe, comes ahead of the start of the Chinese new year on 12 February, when millions of people usually travel across the country to take part in celebrations, raising the risk of transmission.
Heymann says the WHO team is likely to want to complete its research before then, to avoid any unnecessary risk.