A year after the first cases were discovered in the Wuhan region of China, a team of 10 World Health Organization scientists will travel to China for the first time in January. Their mission is expected to last five to six weeks to investigate the origin of the coronavirus responsible for Covid-19.
The goal is not to assign blame
An international team of scientists tasked with tracing the origins of Covid-19, which will visit China in January 2021, will examine all the clues but will try not to point fingers at who is to blame for the worst pandemic in a century, one of the researchers said in an interview with AFP. “The meetings we’ve had so far with Chinese colleagues have been very productive and very good, and my impression at the moment is that the Chinese, at government level but also at the grassroots level, really want to know what happened,” said Fabian Leendertz of the Robert Koch Institute in Germany.
He is one of 10 outstanding scientists chosen by the World Health Organization after a long selection process to try to find the origin of the virus, to figure out how it was transmitted to humans. A year after the first cases were discovered in the Wuhan region of China, they will travel to China for the first time in January and are expected to spend five to six weeks there, including two weeks in quarantine. They will be accompanied by a WHO food safety and zoonosis expert, Dr. Peter Ben Embarek.
“This is not about finding a guilty country or authorities. It’s about understanding what happened so we can reduce the risks in the future,” stresses Fabian Leendertz, a zoonosis expert. He points out that the transmission of viruses from animals to humans happens every year in every country in the world. “It’s just bad luck that this virus is so insidious,” he says.
Follow every lead
Once in China, “we’ll start in Wuhan because that’s where the strongest data is available,” Leendertz says. “From there, we will follow every lead wherever it takes us.” The expert, a trained veterinarian, agreed that it is always better when the traces are fresh to track the origin of a virus, stressing that anything is still possible in terms of scientific analysis.
“When the Ebola epidemic started in West Africa, I went there with my team, we arrived there ten days later. But with my team, we just had just analyzed the spread of measles virus from cattle to humans, and that was 25,000 years ago,” he says. To prepare for the international mission to China, a WHO epidemiologist and animal health expert traveled there this summer. Since then, the ten experts have been able to meet virtually with Chinese scientists on a regular basis.
However, Leendertz cautioned that “the team is not expected to return with conclusive results after this first visit to China in January.” However, he expects to return from China with a concrete plan for Phase 2 of the investigation.
But he explains that most of the work, especially the hands-on part, will be done by Chinese experts: “We are here to bring guidance and transparency.” While scientists generally believe that the original host of the virus is a bat, no one yet knows the intermediate animal that allowed humans to become infected.”
As Mr. Leendertz explains, one approach will be to go back in time, by examining the various data on the cases of human infection archived by Chinese authorities and see if there were any cases before the end of December 2019. Another goal will be to determine the role of the Wuhan market, where exotic animals were sold live.
The expert on highly pathogenic microorganisms says he is almost certain that scientists will somehow figure out what happened, but not tomorrow, it may take some time. Meanwhile, he wants policymakers to “distance themselves as much as possible from the investigation,” alluding to criticism from U.S. President Donald Trump, who accuses Beijing of hiding things and the WHO of bending too much to the will of the Chinese authorities.
Indeed for the investigation to be considered a success the Chinese authorities must be willing to give full access and answer any concerns the experts may have. Short of complete cooperation nothing will convince the millions of skeptics who already believe that china is guilty of a massive coverup and now is just going through the motions to appear as though they are cooperating with the world community. Most importantly finding out exactly what happened could help humanity avoid such catastrophes from taking place in the first place.