WHO-backed probes move forward to try to shed light on early days of coronavirus

Simone McCarthy
·6-min read

Nearly a year after the coronavirus that causes Covid-19 was identified, two World Health Organization-backed inquiries are moving forward that will look into a contentious period – the early days of a virus that has infected 52 million people worldwide.

Details released last week shed light on the plan for one of those missions, a WHO-led scientific inquiry tracing the origins of the virus, first identified in the central Chinese city of Wuhan last year.

Meanwhile, an independent panel tasked with evaluating the international response to Covid-19 will make establishing an authoritative timeline of the pandemic a “top priority”, the co-chairs of the panel said at a meeting of the WHO’s governing body on Tuesday. “Close attention” will be paid to its early days, according to their progress report.

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Both missions have been in the works since May, when they were called for by over 130 member states at the last meeting of the governing body, the World Health Assembly.

Six months later, pressure for insight into how the virus emerged and became a global disaster is mounting amid a surge in cases, with a record 3.6 million infections recorded in the space of a week and a new round of lockdowns and distancing measures being rolled out in Europe and the Americas.

Though different in focus, both inquiries will seek to dig into a period of time that has been the focus of immense scrutiny, with Beijing and the WHO drawing criticism over their initial handling of the outbreak.

China has pledged to support the WHO’s work, and Chinese scientists are involved in both teams. But the success and credibility of the missions will depend heavily on the information the teams can get from within China and how that information is treated, experts say.

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“The question is whether or not first-hand information will be allowed to be gathered independently by the review members or if their access to data will be circumscribed,” said Nicholas Thomas, an associate professor at City University of Hong Kong, who researches health security and governance.

“Acknowledging the early problems and moving on to deeper information exchanges would only benefit China, and the world,” he said.

The Independent Panel for Pandemic Preparedness and Response, made up of 13 former officials and experts, including China’s top infectious disease specialist Zhong Nanshan, will look at this period as part of a larger mission to understand how the pandemic unfolded globally – and what can be improved. They will also draw on the findings of a WHO-led scientific mission, which will start its work in Wuhan.

Infectious disease specialist Zhong Nanshan is on the independent panel. Photo: Xinhua
Infectious disease specialist Zhong Nanshan is on the independent panel. Photo: Xinhua

Details of that mission, released in a November 5 WHO document, show an extensive research plan, but provide no further details on when the international members of the team will head to China to join field work, noting only that this would happen “at an appropriate time”. The names and nationalities of the experts have also not been disclosed.

Among the work laid out is further investigation into wild animals traded at Wuhan’s Huanan market, where a number of the first known patients worked and shopped. The virus is believed to have originated in bats before passing to humans, likely through an intermediary animal, but it remains unclear whether this crossover happened at the market or outside it, according to the WHO.

So far that market has proved a dead-end for animal clues: of the 336 samples from “frozen animal carcasses” that were tested in the market, none were positive for the virus, according to the November 5 report, which updated known figures on animal sampling.

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Other research will involve looking back before December 2019 to review hospital records, death registers and disease surveillance data, and test stored blood samples to find any cases that appeared before those that are already known.

Unpublished government records obtained by the South China Morning Post indicated that Covid-19 cases were identified in Hubei province as early as November 17.

Daniel Lucey, an infectious disease expert at Georgetown University, said it was “implausible” that much of the work in the plan had not already been done by China’s own highly trained disease specialists, even if it was not made public.

“The chances appear very small that the investigation would find something that hasn’t been disclosed, if in fact these investigations have been done,” he said, adding that it was still worth getting scientists together on the ground “on the small chance something might come of it”.

Yanzhong Huang, a senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, said it was likely there was more work to be done in China, but a critical element would be whether the team would “receive the cooperation from the Chinese government to do this information digging”.

The origins of the virus have been a tense political issue as its spread around the world, with American and Chinese diplomats trading accusations over who was responsible for its spread amid deteriorating relations.

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While the tenor of US international relations under the incoming Joe Biden administration is likely to shift, Biden’s team has also signalled in a policy statement that they will be looking to maintain a close watch on pandemic threats, including from China.

China has repeatedly said it worked closely with the WHO on tracing the origins, but has maintained that while the virus was first identified in China, that did not mean it originated in the country.

“Origin tracing is an ongoing process that may involve multiple countries and localities. We hope that all countries will adopt a positive attitude like China and carry out coordination and cooperation with the WHO,” foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said in September.

This point is echoed in the WHO team’s plan, which leaves open the possibility for similar research in other countries.

The plan also makes an omission, according to Huang: “They didn’t say anything about how confident they are in terms of achieving the objectives of identifying the origins of the outbreak.”

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