Health

International probe reaches Wuhan, but what evidence will it find?

By Pakistan Forward and AFP

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A bus carrying members of the World Health Organisation (WHO) team investigating the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic leaves the Wuhan airport following their arrival  on January 14. [Nicolas Asfouri/AFP]

WUHAN, China -- After much delay and political wrangling, a team of analysts from the World Health Organisation (WHO) has finally arrived in Wuhan, China, to probe the origins of the coronavirus more than a year after it emerged.

The international team of 13 scientists landed for their mission on Thursday (January 14). They were met by Chinese officials in hazmat suits and given throat swabs on arrival, and were whisked to a hotel where they must complete a two-week quarantine before starting their work.

Few dispute that the virus that brought the world to its knees originated in 2019 at a Wuhan wet market, where wildlife, including bats, was sold as food.

Since then, the pandemic billowed out across the world, killing almost two million people so far, infecting tens of millions and eviscerating the global economy.

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Security guards stand in front of the closed Huanan wholesale seafood market in Wuhan on January 11, 2020, the day China confirmed its first death from COVID-19. [Noel Celis/AFP]

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Pedestrians walk along a shopping centre in Wuhan, Hubei Province, China, on January 1. [Noel Celis/AFP]

Establishing the pathway of the virus from animals to humans is essential to preventing future outbreaks, according to the WHO.

But despite painstaking months of negotiations over their remit, the Chinese regime blocked the team from arriving earlier this month -- a sign of the political sensitivity of a virus origin story muddied by recrimination among nations, conjecture and denials.

In early 2020, Chinese authorities, knowing a deadly outbreak was afoot, said nothing for almost a week, allowing the virus to take hold in Wuhan and spread across the world, while deliberately suppressing or destroying evidence of the outbreak.

Wuhan authorities initially tried to cover up the outbreak and later spent precious weeks denying human-to-human transmission.

Early on, Chinese officials declared flatly that the outbreak began at the Huanan Seafood Market in Wuhan. But Chinese data in January 2020 showed that several of the first cases had no known links to the now-shuttered market, suggesting a source elsewhere.

China's story morphed again last March when top Chinese disease control official Gao Fu said the market was not the source, but a "victim", a place where the pathogen was merely amplified.

But China has since failed to publicly connect any dots, releasing scant information on animal and environmental samples taken at the market that could aid investigators.

And it has kept foreign specialists at arm's length.

Attempts to change the narrative

From the outset of the crisis, Beijing has been actively attempting to deflect criticism of its role in the coronavirus pandemic by promoting conspiracy theories and has been caught flooding the news and social media with blatant disinformation about the virus.

As part of those efforts, the Chinese regime has been actively pushing the narrative of its "heroic deeds" in the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic.

Beijing has tried to enhance its soft power push during the pandemic -- promising to share its vaccines with developing countries, and engaging in "vaccine diplomacy".

State media have been intent on showing the world that China has moved on from the pandemic, but the WHO visit comes as the Chinese regime moves to snuff out fresh clusters of the virus.

More than 20 million people are under lockdown in the north of China and one province has declared an emergency, as the country on January 14 reported its first death from COVID-19 in eight months.

The same day, China's National Health Commission reported another 138 infections -- the highest single-day tally since March last year.

Beijing is anxious to stamp out local clusters ahead of next month's Lunar New Year festival, when hundreds of millions of travellers will be on the move across the country.

WHO seeking answers

China is braced for the scrutiny that the team of WHO scientists will bring to its virus narrative.

Beijing has drip-fed the idea that the pandemic started outside its borders, preferring to focus on its relatively swift control of the public health crisis.

The state-run People's Daily newspaper, for instance, said in a Facebook post in early November that "all available evidence suggests that the coronavirus did not start in central China's Wuhan".

Also in November, Beijing was quick to spin a study in an Italian medical journal that posited that the COVID-19 coronavirus was circulating in Italy as early as September 2019, eliminating key details of the research conclusions and using sketchy science to reinforce doubts over the origins of the outbreak.

The reality is all evidence points to Wuhan as the epicentre of the global crisis, which is why the WHO team has been keen to start its research there.

The WHO has been at pains to cut the political baggage attached to its mission.

It "could be a very long journey before we get a full understanding of what happened", warned WHO team leader Peter Ben Embarek.

After the mandatory two-week hotel quarantine, the team will "be able to move around and meet our Chinese counterparts in person and go to the different sites that we will want to visit", he said.

"I don't think we will have clear answers after this initial mission, but we will be on the way," Embarek said.

"The idea is to advance a number of studies that were already designed and decided upon some months ago to get us a better understanding of what happened."

Secrecy and doubts

What the scientists will be allowed to see or may expect to find a year on is also in doubt. Authorities may have destroyed or scrubbed crucial evidence in a panicked initial response, say analysts.

"Every outbreak goes the same way. It's chaotic and dysfunctional," said Peter Daszak, president of EcoHealth Alliance, a global NGO focused on infectious disease prevention.

"They didn't do a great job on the animal investigation early on," he said.

"In some ways, they were quite open; in others they were less than open."

The reasons for Chinese secrecy are unclear, but the ruling Communist Party has a history of suppressing politically damaging information.

Whistleblowers and citizen reporters who shared details of the terrifying early weeks of the virus on the internet have since been muzzled or jailed.

Beijing may want to hide regulatory or investigative lapses to avoid domestic embarrassment or global "blowback", said Daniel Lucey, a Georgetown University epidemiologist who closely tracks global outbreaks.

The Wuhan market might not even be the issue, he said, adding that the virus was already spreading rapidly in Wuhan by December 2019, indicating that it was in circulation much earlier.

That is because it may take months or even years for a virus to develop the necessary mutations to become highly contagious among humans.

Augmenting the doubt, in December China said the number of coronavirus cases circulating in Wuhan may have been 10 times higher early in the epidemic than revealed by official figures at the time.

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