The WHO is finally landing in China to start tracking the coronavirus. Will it be difficult?

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More than a year after the appearance of a new coronavirus in China, a team of experts from the World Health Organization finally arrived in the central city of Wuhan on Thursday to begin looking for its source, the researchers reported. Chinese state media.

The investigation by the team of 10 scientists is a crucial step in understanding how the virus was transmitted to humans from animals in order to prevent another pandemic. Getting answers will probably be difficult.

The Chinese government, notoriously suspicious of outside scrutiny, has repeatedly blocked the team’s arrival – and investigation. Even in the best-case scenario, a full investigation could take months or more. The team must also navigate China’s attempts to politicize the investigation.

Here’s what you need to know about the survey.

Obstacles and control

Visa delays. Quarantine rules. Political stone wall.

Apparently worried about drawing renewed attention to the country’s early mistakes in handling the pandemic, Chinese officials have used a variety of tactics over the past year to hamper the WHO investigation.

After resisting requests from other countries asking it to allow independent investigators on its soil to study the origin of the pathogen, China finally let two WHO experts visit in July to lay the groundwork. Then, he quickly quarantined the team for 14 days, forcing its members to do some of their detective work remotely.

They were not allowed to travel to Wuhan, where the virus first emerged.

For months, China delayed approving a visit from a full team of experts, frustrating health agency officials. When the visit appeared to be finalized earlier this month, it collapsed at the last minute when Beijing failed to provide visas to visitors, according to the health agency. Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director general of the World Health Organization, issued a rare criticism to Beijing during a press conference, saying he was “very disappointed” by the delays.

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The Chinese government has demanded that Chinese scientists oversee significant parts of the investigation. It limited the access of the World Health Agency to important research and data. The entire WHO team will have to undergo two weeks of quarantine in Wuhan before they can start research.

Critics say Beijing’s desire for control means the investigation will most likely be more political than scientific.

“You want this investigation to be thorough, non-politicized, independent and transparent,” said Yanzhong Huang, senior researcher for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations. “But we have to be realistic.”

Chinese experts and a team from the World Health Organization visit Wuhan Tongji hospital in February last year. | CHINA DAILY / VIA REUTERS

Despite the troubles, the WHO says it intends to conduct a rigorous and transparent study.

“WHO has been committed to investigating the origins of the virus from the start,” Tarik Jasarevic, a spokesperson for the agency, said in a statement. “We call on all countries to support these efforts by being open and transparent.”

An arduous task

The team arrived in Wuhan, according to the official broadcaster CGTN, will face a city radically transformed since the appearance of the virus at the end of 2019. The city which was locked on January 23 and has become a symbol of the devastation of the virus . was touted by Chinese authorities a year later as an achievement in beating the virus – a city reborn.

WHO experts have decades of experience in the fields of virus, animal health and disease control. They come from Great Britain, Germany, Japan, Russia, the United States and other countries. Peter Daszak, a British disease ecologist, and Hung Nguyen, a Vietnamese scientist who studies zoonoses, are among the team members.

But finding the source of the virus that killed nearly 2 million people worldwide and infected more than 92 million on Thursday will be difficult. While experts believe the virus is naturally occurring in animals, possibly bats, little else is known.

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The team is expected to look at the first reported cases of the virus in China, most likely looking at data from samples collected at a large wet market in Wuhan that sold game meat and live animals. Many of the first infections reported were traced there.

The team’s access to China will be critical, according to public health experts.

They should be able to review all the data collected by the China Center for Disease Control on the outbreak, “including contact tracing, environmental sampling, genetic sequences and zero patient identification.” said Raina MacIntyre, head of the biosafety program at the Kirby Institute. from the University of New South Wales in Sydney. “It is important to do this in a holistic and transparent way.”

The health agency did not specify the duration of the investigation and did not publish a detailed itinerary for the team’s visit.

Marion Koopmans, a Dutch virologist on the WHO team, said the investigation was a “long-term project”.

“We will pull together all the scientific information already collected by our colleagues in China and discuss, ‘What does this tell us? “She said in a recent interview with CGTN, China’s international television station, any information we would like to add? How could this be done?

Politics and propaganda

The pandemic has damaged China’s reputation, with many foreign governments still angry that Beijing did not do more to contain the crisis in its early stages. Chinese propagandists are therefore trying to use the WHO investigation to help bolster China’s image and portray the country as a mature superpower.

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“China is open, frank and sincere,” the state-run Xinhua news agency said in a comment Wednesday on the investigation.

A member of the World Health Organization team investigating the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic sits on a bus after the team arrived in Wuhan on Thursday.  |  AFP-JIJI
A member of the World Health Organization team investigating the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic sits on a bus after the team arrived in Wuhan on Thursday. | TBEN-JIJI

The WHO itself has also come under attack from the administration of US President Donald Trump for appearing to bend to China’s will, even as the US has come under fire for its ineffective response to the pandemic. Ahead of the team’s arrival, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Twitter on Tuesday: “The WHO has been corrupted by Chinese influence and bought at a low price. WHO investigators cannot still not access Wuhan – a year after the first cases were reported? “

On the same day, Global Times, a state-run tabloid, wrote that the current visit showed that China “has always been determined to make its contribution to the global fight against the pandemic with a transparent and accountable attitude and a spirit of respect for science. “

The Chinese government has attempted to push unfounded theories that the virus emerged outside of China. Chinese scientists have suggested, without evidence, that packaged food from overseas could have brought the virus to China or that the pandemic could have started in India.

The heated political climate will make it difficult for the WHO to conduct an independent investigation, experts say.

“The main concern here is that the origin of the epidemic has been so politicized,” said Huang, the global health expert. “It really reduced the space for the WHO to conduct an independent, objective and scientific investigation.”

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