WHO’s Covid mission to Wuhan: ’It’s not about finding China guilty’ | Coronavirus | The Guardian
When the scientists on the World Health Organization’s mission to research the origins of Covid-19 touch down in China as expected on Thursday at the beginning of their investigation they are clear what they will – and what they will not – be doing.They intend to visit Wuhan, the site of the first major outbreak of Covid-19, and talk to Chinese scientists who have been studying the same issue. They will want to see if there are unexamined samples from unexplained respiratory illnesses, and they will want to examine ways in which the virus might have jumped the species barrier to humans. What the mission will not be, several of the scientists insist, is an exercise in “finger pointing at China” – something long demanded by the Trump administration and some of its allies.
While some of the scientists will travel to China, others will be part of a wider effort that has drawn in global experts in diseases.
The importance of being on the ground in China, of seeing sites associated with the Wuhan outbreak, was underlined by Fabian Leendertz, professor in the epidemiology of highly pathogenic microorganisms at Germany’s public health body, the Robert Koch Institute, and part of the team.Involved in tracking down the source of the 2014 Ebola outbreak in west Africa to a bat colony in a tree, he has also worked on identifying when measles may have first jumped to humans. While some have built up considerable expectations around the first visit, Leendertz cautions that his experience suggests it can take time to get to the initial bottom of outbreaks, if at all.
“We will see how long it takes. There’s small possibility we will only come up with scenarios, that we wont be able to come up with a scientific proof. For example my group published a paper last summer in Science where we found it was probably 25,000 years since measles spread from cattle to humans. Hopefully it won’t take that long,” he joked.
Leendertz, like other colleagues involved in the mission, is clear, however, about one thing. “This is not about finding China guilty or saying ‘it started here, give or take three metres.’ This is about reducing the risk. And the media can help by avoiding Trump style finger-pointing. Our job is not political.“There will never be no risk, which is why it’s not the time to say it is farming animals or people going into bat caves for guano. It has be a data-based investigation and at the moment there is very limited data around the origin.“We know the closest relative viruses in bat species. But we still need to find the original reservoir, if there were intermediate hosts and even intermediate human hosts.”And while China has suggested other places outside of the country where the virus could have originated Leendertz believes that Wuhan remains the best starting point.“I think the WHO philosophy is a good one. Start at the point which has the most solid description of human cases even if we do not know that the Wuhan wet market was the point where it first spilled over into humans or was simply the first mega spreading event.
“From Wuhan we can go back in time to follow the evidence. [The origin] may stay in the region. It may go to another part of China. It may even go to another country.”While there was a conversation in the team about whether the research could be done remotely, when it looked for a moment last week the visit might be blocked by China, he is not convinced that would have been a useful strategy.“You can’t do an investigation of any outbreak remotely,” he told the Guardian. “It’s just not really possible. I don’t want to give the impression we’ll be taking swabs or finding bats, but it is really important to see the locations and the settings, the wet market in Wuhan, the virology institute, to see the wildlife farms, the potential interface between the virus and humans.“We have already had a few productive online meetings with our Chinese counterparts but it is better to be sitting down and brainstorming to develop hypotheses.”Leendertz’s remarks on finger pointing were echoed by fellow team member Marion Koopmans in an interview with the Chinese television channel CGTN.“The WHO warned about the risk of emerging diseases, and I don’t think any country is immune to that. So I don’t believe this is about blaming. It’s about understanding and learning that for the future of our global preparedness. So, I don’t think we should be pointing fingers here. But it is important to start in Wuhan, where a big outbreak occurred. We need to have an open mind to all sorts on the hypothesis. And that’s what we’ve been asked to do. But we need to start in Wuhan where we first learned about the situation.”
Professor John Watson, a UK member of the team and a former deputy chief medical officer, echoed many of the same sentiments. “I’ve worked on outbreaks mainly in the UK,” he told the Guardian. “And although in theory you could do it remotely being on the spot makes a big difference. Understanding how a place works and having direct contact with the individuals involved.“I am going into this with an entirely open mind and the colleagues on the team I have managed to speak to are the same. This is a chance to go and find out the facts: what is available to know now and what lines of investigation might be fruitful in the future. I’m not sure a single trip will find all the answers, it may never be wholly sorted, but it is a start.”
Leendertz is clear about one thing, however. While the international scientists on the team do the investigation, the complex and sensitive diplomacy around access will be handled by the WHO amid concerns in some circles that China might try and obstruct the work.