The World Health Organization’s international mission in China to investigate the origin of COVID-19 will investigate all routes and does not seek to find the “wrong” sides, a team member told AFP.
Investigators will head to China in January and to Wuhan, where the first cases were discovered 12 months ago in a pandemic that has engulfed the world, sparking huge global health and economic crises.
“The meetings we have had so far with our Chinese colleagues have been really productive and very good,” said Fabian Leendertz of the Robert Koch Institute, Germany’s central disease control body.
“My impression at the moment is that the Chinese – both at the government and at the population level – are really interested in finding out what happened.”
Leendertz, 48, is an expert on zoonoses – infectious diseases that cross the species barrier – and are among 10 eminent scientists assigned by the WHO to try to find the origin of the new coronavirus and determine how it jumped from animals to humans.
A year after the first cluster was discovered in Wuhan, they will travel to China for the first time with a mission that should last between five and six weeks – the first two carried out in quarantine.
The ten scientists will also be accompanied by Peter Ben Embarek, a World Health Organization expert on food safety and zoonoses.
“This is not about finding the wrong country or the wrong government,” Leendertz said. “This is about understanding what happened to avoid it in the future, to reduce the risk.”
Leendertz said that viruses jump from animals to humans, all over the world, every year.
“It was just bad luck that this was such a nasty virus,” the German said.
‘Follow the trails’
“We’re starting in Wuhan because that’s where the most reliable first data is available,” Leendertz said. “From there we follow the tracks wherever they take us.”
Although he admitted that “the fresher the stripes, the better”, trained veterinarian Leendertz said that even a year after that, “it is still possible to narrow down the scenario”.
He added that all roads remained open in terms of scientific analysis.
An epidemiologist and animal health expert from the WHO traveled to China in July with the task of laying the foundations for a wider international investigation.
Since the end of October, ten experts have held regular virtual meetings with Chinese scientists working in the same line.
Leendertz warned that “we should not expect that after this first visit to China sometime in January, the team will return with final results.”
However, he hopes the team will return from China with a “concrete plan” for the second phase of the investigation, which will consider what else was needed to pinpoint the transmission event where the virus jumped from animal to human.
A matter of time
Leendertz explained that “most of” the work, especially the “practical” basics, will be done by Chinese experts.
The international mission is “there to support them” and also “gives transparency to the rest of the world”.
Although scientists generally believe that bats are the original species of the host virus, it is not yet known among animals between bats and humans.
Leendertz said the team would go “back in time” by examining various human swabs held by Chinese authorities, as well as collecting serum from blood donors to determine if people were exposed to the virus before the first cluster was recorded in December 2019. years.
Another approach will be to determine the role played by the Wuhan wet market, where live exotic animals were bought and sold.
An expert in the epidemiology of highly pathogenic microorganisms said he was “pretty sure we’ll somehow find out what happened.”
But he said the response “could take time”, with no time frame for an investigation.
In the meantime, he hoped that politics would remain “as far away as possible” from the mission.
Outgoing President of the United States (USA) Donald Trump accused China of covering up the initial outbreak of the disease and marked the WHO as a puppet of Beijing. – AFP