WHO team set to visit Wuhan in January to probe Covid origins

A World Health Organization team set up to investigate the origins of the coronavirus pandemic is set to arrive in China in January, amid criticism from the US over the probe’s scope and transparency.

Questions of how, where and when the Sars-Cov-2 virus, which causes Covid-19, first began infecting humans are central to scientists’ efforts to avoid the next outbreak. 

More than a year after cases were first discovered in central Wuhan, a WHO-convened team of specialists hoped to arrive China in January, said the global health organisation.

Scientific research into the source of the outbreak has found similar, but non-identical, strains of the virus in horseshoe bats, and one popular theory suggests that the virus was then transmitted to an intermediary host before making the jump to humans. Many details of the process, however, remain unclear.

The debate has stoked the worst diplomatic feud between Washington and Beijing in decades. The Trump administration has repeatedly blamed China for failures in detecting and controlling the virus, and accused Beijing of concealing important details of the early outbreak.

Beijing maintains that the virus’s origins are unclear and that it could have come from outside China. Both sides have dabbled in conspiracy theories suggesting the virus may have been man-made or leaked from a lab.

“It’s really not about finding a guilty country,” Fabian Leendertz, a biologist at Germany’s Robert Koch Institute and one of the experts on the team, told the Associated Press. “It’s about trying to understand what happened.”

One early hypothesis that linked “patient zero” to a Wuhan market, which sold wild animals, is now considered unlikely because many early cases had no obvious connection to the location.

At a meeting of the World Health Assembly, WHO’s decision-making body, in May, member states agreed that a team of international experts should travel to China to conduct research into the origins. 

But the advance team for the investigation failed to travel to Wuhan, sparking criticism from US diplomats that the WHO was allowing China to dictate terms.

Terms of reference for the investigation released in early November again drew Washington’s ire by stating that the team of international experts would “augment, rather than duplicate” studies already carried out by China. 

The US, in response, said the terms were “not negotiated in a transparent way” and labelled them “inconsistent” with the investigation’s mandate.

WHO experts have since said that the team will both review Chinese studies and consider whether additional research is required.

Maria Van Kerkhove, the WHO’s Covid-19 technical lead, said this month that Wuhan studies “looking at the first cases that were detected are really, really critical”.

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