Covid: identifying animal origin of the pandemic, a "work in progress" WHO's envoys say

Published by Cécile D. · Published on 9 February 2021 at 14h03
At the end of four weeks on a mission, international investigators sent to Wuhan, China, by WHO have held a press conference this February 9, 2021 in order to share the first results of their investigation.

Their four-week mission ended earlier in February. WHO's envoys have been entrusted with understanding how and where the Covid-19 pandemic broke out. During a press briefing held this February 9, 2021, the international investigators sent to Wuhan, China, along with their Chinese peers, have delivered the first conclusions of their work. They yet recall these results are no firm answers to questions we may have on the origin of the pandemic and that other researches must be conducted.

The international delegation has tweeted and gave interviews all along their mission. Experts assure they have been given access to all places they wanted to examine. Investigators visited the animal market where have been reported the first coronavirus cases over a year ago, as well as the virology institute the Americans accused of originated the leak of the virus.

At the beginning of the conference, the head of the Chinese scientist delegation, Liang Wannian, said that identifying animal origin of the pandemic was a "work in progress" - which has been confirmed by WHO experts. Yet, animal-transmission is "the most likely" hypothesis. This lead yet requires "more specific and targeted investgation" head of WHO's envoys Peter Ben Embarek says.

Furthermore, experts considered the leak from a laboratory would be "highly unlikely". Covid-19 origin remains unknown to date.

During his speech, Wannian also added "there is insufficient evidence to determine that Covid-19 was being spread in China's central Wuhan before December 2019". Experts sent by WHO yet recommends people to be patient: searchers from all over the world keep on assessing and looking for the cause of the pandemic and more detailed answers might arirve soon.

A first and complicated start

As WHO's envoys were expected to start working on January 5, they have only been recently granted permissions to enter China. With one week of delay, Beijing finally granted the precious visas necessary to international experts to travel across the country.

This Monday January 11, Chinese Health Minister ultimately announced the team sent by WHO will be able to start working from Thursday January 14. This is good news as the international community started to fear the Chinese authorities would put a spoke in the team's wheels.

China is dreading the results of this mission expected to ascertain where the pandemic broke out. The first indications place Wuhan as the epicenter of the epidemic - although scientists say they are not looking for people at fault and only wish to understand how this health crisis broke out - and Chinese people are worried about the conclusions of such an investigation.

Highly expected visas

A team of inspectors sent by WHO to China to investigate on the origins of the Coronavirus pandemic is stuck at the border of the country. During a conference held on January 5 in Geneva, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus explained that “Today, we learned that Chinese officials have not yet finalized the necessary permissions for the team's arrival in China”.

He also said he was “very disappointed with this news, given that two members had already begun their journeys and others were not able to travel at the last minute”. Investigators were to get visas granted by Beijing to complete their very special mission.

As they had not been granted, one of the two traveling experts has had to go back, while the other is waiting for permission in another country. First, a team of ten experts was awaited: scientists, epidemiologists and zoologists from Denmark, United-Kingdom, the Netherlands, Australia, Russia, Vietnam, Germany, the United-States of America, Qatar, and Japan expected to assess if Wuhan is the epicenter of the pandemic or not.

The topic is very sensitive for the Chinese government, suspected of voluntarily slowing the investigation down. A few days before, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said that even though the virus had been discovered in Wuhan, it originated from elsewhere: “More and more research suggests that the pandemic was likely to have been caused by separate outbreaks in multiple places in the world” he said.

One of the scientists taking part in the investigation, Fabian Leendertz (from the Robert Koch Institute in Germany) said: “It’s really not about finding a guilty country. It’s about trying to understand what happened and then see if based on those data, we can try to reduce the risk in the future”.

WHO Emergencies Chief Michael Ryan also addressed during the January 5’s press brief in Geneva. He tries to remain optimistic and hopes this delay is only caused by “a logistic and bureaucratic issue that can be resolved very quickly”. He added he has “been assured that China is speeding up the internal procedure for the earliest possible deployment”.

Ryan once again insisted on the importance of this investigation mission to the Chinese authorities and WHO hopes to see the situation evolve positively very soon.

Despite Beijing has tried to show willingness, the situation is not evolving. It seems the problem is not only an administrative issue, as Ryan hopes. On Wednesday January 6, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hua Chunying said: "Tracing the source [of the virus] is a complicated issue. To ensure that the international team’s work progresses smoothly, they must go through the necessary procedures".

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